The Box

by W.M. Butler

This place is horrible. I can’t have my baby here. Please don’t let me have my baby here! John! Please! — It’s OK. It’s OK. — No, you’re right, you’re right she makes it more beautiful here. Look at her eyes John they’re so brown and her hair, it’s black just like yours. Her fingers and toes John, all there and so wonderfully pink — John.

“Mr. Mori?”
“Wake up.”

They told John Mori that the procedure was a success but that sometimes during implant a fragment would play during the hook-up due to reboot. It was a small issue and was in no danger. He should not worry. They gave him a control box no larger than cigarette package, no thicker than two dimes stacked on top of the other. They reviewed the instructions of The Box for use with the implant, and sent him home.

Home…only ten more hours. Ten more hours left and I can rock my baby on my knee and sing her songs my mother sang to me. She was worth it, John.

“Worth it,” thought John Mori as he watched the buildings blur by from the cabin of the shuttle. “So fast, these things. They go so fast, you can see nothing you can recognize.” It was worth it though to see, to understand what had happened. Even now when he thought he was so far away, after all these years, it was unbelievable that he could now come so close. He looked at The Box on his lap. He brushed his creased hand across its frictionless surface, only to bring his hand up to the implant point behind his left ear. Not even a scar. His hand fell back to his lap but restlessly resisted containment, it was only a moment before his fingers found the memory and selected the next viewing.

John we should name her after your mother. She was so kind to me before the NanJing Complex was lost, before all of this. You mother was a kind woman and those where better times, there was more hope then. Let’s name her Min.

He unlocked the front door to his tiny apartment. It wasn’t much in the way of restitution for his trials during The Purge but after the P.D.R.O.A. was overthrown, the other nations did what could be done in way of support for survivors, but those countries themselves were depleted after two wars and Operation Tomb Sweeping in ’72. Things were different now and that was all such a long time ago. He had stayed in the tiny apartment while the others moved on, while the world moved into a new age of enlightenment, the advances in technology, the death of God. He held his peace and took what was given and nothing more. It wasn’t until he learned of The Box that something within him woke up.

We need more food John, She’s hungry and she’s growing fast. If she doesn’t have enough she’ll get sick and she will die. Our daughter will die. Bribe the Guards, your speech is good, they like you because of it. Pingguo, she likes them, see if you can find any Pingguo.

He cut the apple into thin slivers, his teeth where not so good anymore. The sweet tart bite of a Granny Smith, once so hard to find, now overflowing from bins at roadside stalls and markets. He had nearly killed a man once over an apple, not even one so perfectly shaped and ripe as this, but a ragged, bruised, and rotting thing that tasted of filth and disintegrated into mush the moment it came into contact with saliva. He had crushed the man’s windpipe until the very moment it was ready to pop. He had seen such things done for less, had watched such things done with a limp and foggy, nameless uneasiness but could not bring himself to such a state, he could not kill a man for such a trivial thing as an apple. Besides, the man was already unconscious, what good would it do to kill him? He had the apple for his daughter, his daughter wouldn’t starve, but this man’s dau — well even he couldn’t recall now.

He needed to distract himself for a time. This was all too much all at once. He dropped the sliver of apple to the plate half eaten. What remained in his mouth now bitter ash. He tuned The Box to the instruction screen and read up on connected memories. You could connect the same or similar memory, that two partners had shared and play them at once thus creating a new remembrance constructed by both. It could also be programmed to connect more than two, up to four if the memories where similar enough. You could actually connect several memories by their similarity to each other and thus make a whole new memory weave and experience it. John understood, the interface of The Box made it so easy, even an old man like him could operate the thing. It was one of the reasons why he chose to get the procedure done. The other reasons were is own. He made a duo-connect and closed his eyes

Open your eyes John I don’t like it when they are closed — I love you Rose — I love you too! — Don’t get me pregnant John, don’t make a baby. We can’t have a baby here John — Oh God! — Rose I love you — John — Rose — Jesus! Not inside — I love you. I love you. I love you. Rose I’m so afraid of dying that sometimes I think I would give you up to live. Am I a bad man Rose? — John? Are… you still awake? What did you say? — Nothing Rose. It’s Nothing. Go back to sleep —

They were both so afraid. The fear was real for both of them, just different. He knew why she was afraid to have a child. He understood. But that night as he lay there in the dark he knew she would conceive. He didn’t want her to, but something inside of him wanted to survive in case he didn’t, in case Rose didn’t. He couldn’t explain it then but he knew now what it was. It was selfish. It was a mistake. Like so many other things, a mistake he could not forgive himself for. He flipped through the memory selection looking for forgiveness knowing he would find none. He let the memory waver beneath his thumb before pressing play.

Playing John. She was playing as little girls do and those two pig guards, the two by the spigot. You know them, one has the two rotten front teeth that look as if they had been burned down to numbs and the one with Cauliflower Ears. Them. I heard them say it while I was drawing water. I know what they said John, Don’t argue with me. I know enough to know when they are talking filth. Those Pudong Basin animals. They watched as Min played, they joked about the peach being ready to pluck. I know what that means John. I know what it means. You need to do something before they touch our daughter. — Rose please… If something happens to them the others will find out, they always find out and they will kill us all, or worse they will make us watch each other die. Rose what can I do? — Kill them John, you kill them — Rose…Rose… — I can’t. I can’t kill anyone. Rose. I’m Sorry. — Don’t walk out on me John. YOU DON’T GET TO LEAVE!

He felt the first stabbing pains of a headache, he had been warned about this. The technicians had told him that excessive use would cause head pain and nausea. When this happened one need simply stop for an hour or two and once the headache disappeared, you were free to use The Box again. If you did not the machine was set with a failsafe that would shut down any programs running for twelve hours. The Box would simply show a viewing of a little rainbow windmill and blink off. John breathed deeply calming himself, returning the beating of his heart to a slower state. He took a drink from a bottle of water that sat on the table in front of him. The stabbing pains soon faded and only a slight buzzing in his ears remained. He needed to stop. He needed his rest. This was enough for one day. He went to his room and lay down on the bed and drifted off into a deep sleep.

Devices can be turned on and off but nightmares, nightmares can never be stopped, never be switched off. There are no fail-safes for what you see when you sleep.

This is what John Mori saw in the darkness.

The door swings open and I walk into our shack. I feel shame for my cowardliness, my inability to be a man to do what must be done. I stand in the doorway afraid of what my wife will say. I do not register the scene in front of me. Moments only but they are disfigured, mutating into hours, days, years, all the years of my life. It is horrible. It is madness. Rose above Min on the bed holding her down. Her arms straining from the struggle. A pillow over Min’s face, her legs kicking wildly. Her finger nails digging into her mother’s arms. Blood trickling down, my legs are waded down with iron. My stomach churns. I cry out but nothing comes. Suddenly, as if being released from a tomb of amber, I break free. I am there at the bed I am pulling Rose away. She is screaming. She is yelling something at me but I cannot understand what she is saying. She speaks in her mother’s language. But I know. Somehow I know what she means. This is my fault. This is my fault. Mine. We are on the ground tangled, I scramble over Rose. She is clawing at me. Tears so many tears — her face is not her own. It is monstrous. I reach the bed and pull the pillow away just in time to see my daughter attempt to breath, but it does not come. Her eyes snare something far away, she follows like a rabbit down a hole, she is gone. My wife is screaming, “This is your fault! This is your fault!”

John woke up and blindly reached outwards across the bed to the nightstand, fumbling until he felt the smooth coolness of The Box. He clasped it to his chest and held the cold surface against the thundering of his heart. He did not sleep the rest of the night but instead stayed up, drinking tea into the early hours of day. It was seven o’clock when he finally stood from the chair and readied himself for the day ahead. Living as long as he did in the camps, he was efficient and quick when it came to his toiletries. With so little water and so many people scrambling for it, one had to be quick. It was something he never lost. It was ten past seven by the time he had finished and walked out the door. He would not return until nine in the evening.

John came in and sat down at the table. He pulled The Box from his pocket. He sat staring at it for some time. John thought back to that night when his wife had killed their only daughter. He had never forgiven her but he still loved her, cared for her all those years after they were freed. Yet she always hated him for what had happened. Blamed him, reminded him every day. He accepted it. He understood what she had done and why, because of what he couldn’t do. He hated himself for it. He missed his daughter, he missed his wife after she had died old and delirious in the hospice. Then he took her memories because he could not understand why she needed to relive the murder of her daughter. Why she brought home young girls to smother until they were dead. Why would she want that? Why did he help her? Why did he let it happen?

Five times in the past thirty years she had brought home little girls that looked very much like their Min. The first time, he walked in while it was happening. He thought he was delirious, that he had fallen back through time to that day. It was horrifying. Yet, again he let it happen. He was a coward. He wasn’t even human. Worthless. The other times he watched as she did it, as she brought them home and snuffed the life from them. But unlike when Rose killed their daughter, she was now silent while the children struggled beneath her. She would make him stand in front of her while she stared into his eyes bombarding him with mortar rounds of accusation until she was finished. And he would let it happen again and again. It was his punishment. He took his punishment and knew he deserved it. Each time hating himself for not stopping Rose. For not saving those children, not saving his daughter. For not saving his wife from herself.

John Mori made the connections. He could make as many connections as he wanted now. This was China after all and if one thing remained constant in China, it was that if you needed a hack for anything you could get it, as long as you had enough money and John Mori had just enough. He spliced the memories of six dark haired girls one of them his daughter, six renderings of his wife, six memories of himself as he watched it all happen again, all together as both himself and as his wife. And he knew that this would be enough. He gave into the horror, into the monster he had become, the one he had created in Rose.

When the first barbs of pain pressed around his skull, he let out a whimper. He would not fail now. Not this time. The hack held and the pain increased until it felt as if pure sunlight had turned solid to slice the top of his skull clean off. The surface of his brain quivered as the images of his crimes increased in repetition and speed. The convulsions raked his body, his bones straining under the pressure, felt as if they would break like dry kindling under the agony of such boundless torture. He felt himself begin to fade only for the assault on his body to be set ablaze again. His eyes bled, his eardrums burst and in the final moments of John Mori’s life, it felt as if God had returned to dig his fingers into John’s brain and scoop them out from their worthless husk. Leaving him finally and truly empty after all these years of shame and horror.

As his eyes snared on something far away, John Mori thought,

“This, this is what mercy must feel like.”