This page contains:
- Drug use
- Mental health issues
- Self-harming behaviors
The car came to a stop after a drive spent in excruciating quiet. Rain pattered off the windscreen while Mark turned off a radio that had been feeding them static in spurts. When he turned off the engine next, he realised his mistake: it created a new and more profound silence. Anything they said now may as well be screamed. There would be no ‘see you later’ or ‘take care’ or some other minimal vocalisation to signal the moment Carl was allowed to wordlessly unlatch the door, step out into the rain, and disappear into the shabby grey building across the sidewalk. This conversation would become a matter of permanent record.
And the silence wanted breaking. Mark instead sat with his hands on the wheel and studied Carl out of the corner of his eye. Carl hadn’t moved since he got in, slumped in the passenger seat. A man of thirty-three who dressed exactly the same as when they were both stumbling into their teenage years, all oversized ratbag leisure. The hooded jumper he wore was crusty in places, and Mark had noticed the way the cuffs of Carl’s jeans had gotten thready over his heels, dragging like mice tails. The patchy curls of beard that clung to his jaw looked pubic.
And Mark knew how he had looked to Carl, back when Carl was able to make fun of him. Mark looked like, in no particular order, the son of a youth pastor who wanted to grow up to be a youth pastor, like someone who handed out pamphlets, like a morning weatherman, like a serial killer in disguise.
Growing up as twins, they’d been extremely invested in the things that made them different, and the ways they grew apart.
“I mean,” Mark heard himself say, as detached from the sound of his own voice as if it had suddenly started playing out of the silent radio, “you know this is the last time I’m going to do this for you.”
Carl only turned his head a little so that he wasn’t gazing mournfully out the window. Tuning in from wherever he had gone.
“And don’t ask me for money,” Mark continued.
“I don’t ask you for money. I haven’t since last year.”
“By last year, do you mean when I—”
“Yes, Mark, I mean when you and mum got me into a clinic, and when I fucked that up too, I have not since that time asked you for money.”
“I’m trying to say something.”
“Then say it, mate.”
Mark held on harder to the steering wheel. What was this messy tide of feeling rising in him? Maybe rage. He was never good at anger. Neither of them were. Anger would come and they wouldn’t know what to do with it, how to have a fight. They were criers, their family, criers and peacekeepers and people who went for a smoke outside or into separate rooms. Separate cities. Since marriage, Mark had outsourced most of his anger to his husband. Nate would get angry for him, and liked to say things like, ‘you can’t let him use you’ and 'family is a two-way street’ and ‘if he thinks having boundaries means you don’t love him, then I’m sorry, that’s fucked’ and, even worse, ‘let me talk to him’.
And he knew Nate knew he would not let that happen. And then he’d get mad at Nate, for making it sound like Mark had it coming. Mark never found the words for that either.
But Nate was a little right. Right? Like that time he implied Mark perpetuated the cycle by pulling Carl out of trouble, only for Carl to fall back in. He’d said that word, too. Not encouraged, not enabled, but perpetuated, make it go on and on forever, in perpetuity. Like anyone was happy to be here.
“I can’t help you,” he landed on this time, with Carl. “I can’t keep helping you. Don’t call me again, and don’t call mum again. Call your sponsor, call emergency services. Me helping you just means you’re not helping yourself.”
“Okay,” said Carl, and opened the door into the rain.
Mark drove away, repeating his own words back to himself, and turned the radio back on, which filled the car with static. Filled his head with static. His lungs.
“Did you regret what you said before Carl passed?”
He breathes out. No more static. He is lying on his back and sees mostly darkness with barely perceptible visual shapes, shapes that seem like microscopic amoebas sliding over his eyeballs, or formless masses drifting in the distance.
“Can I move?”
“Try to stay relaxed, Mark.”
A feminine voice. A specialist. Dr. Anne Suda, who shakes hands by clasping yours in both of hers and favours necklaces that look like floatation devices. She had disarmed him immediately with incisive intelligence and easy empathy during their first three sessions. But here, without those cues, without her chill hands and serious mouth, without her sitting across from him as if his mental health was a poker game, she is just a voice in the darkness.
He tries to relax like she says, and she asks again, “Did you regret what you said before Carl passed?”
“I kept repeating it to myself on the drive home. I wanted to run it by Nate.”
“And,” he adds, before she has to point out that he had avoided her question, “I regret it more now. That’s a shitty last thing to say to someone.”
“Is that all?”
Mark falls silent, feeling his throat close. If he speaks now, he’ll sound strangled. He’d told her that thing about being in a family of criers, how sometimes it just happens even if he doesn’t feel sad, just frustrated or angry or helpless. He doesn’t feel sad now, not in an obvious way, because he feels sad all the time. His body rebels, demanding he get sadder.
Trying to keep his voice level, he says, “No, obviously not.”
“I’m going to restart the simulation. If at any moment you experience confusion, discomfort, distress, simply activate the escape trigger.”
“Wait. I don’t—I don’t know what to say instead.”
“You haven't thought about it?”
“I mean, yes, I’ve thought about it. But I don’t know if it’ll work.”
“That’s not the object of the exercise. Nothing needs to ‘work’. There’s no single answer. It’s only a simulation, Mark. We can rerun it as many times as you need.”
“Okay.” Mark squeezes his eyes closed. “Yeah, okay. Hit me.”
The static rises up like a tide, pulling him away from darkness.
The car came to a stop after a drive spent in excruciating quiet. Rain pattered off the windscreen. Mark turned off a radio that had been feeding them static in spurts and turned off the engine as well.
“I’m sorry,” Mark said.
Carl only turned his head a little so that he wasn’t gazing mournfully out the window. Tuning in from wherever he had gone.
“I’m sorry you’re going through this,” Mark said, looking first to what he could see of Carl in the rear view mirror, then directly towards him. “I’m sorry I can’t imagine what it’s like, and that I don’t know what to do.”
“Why would that be a thing you need to apologise for?” asked Carl, and it was Carl, saying it. His big dumb brow creasing, his body bundled defensively into his hoodie.
“Because, I’m—because right now I think I know what’s happening but I didn’t know. Because right now I think you’re being selfish or, like. Fucking lazy and stubborn and stupid. But that can’t be it. It’s not being selfish or lazy or stubborn or stupid to kill yourself.”
“So what do you know?”
“Christ, I’m fucking this up.”
“What do you know about me that made me kill myself, Mark?”
“Listen, I’m trying to say that I’m sorry.”
“It’s easy, right?” Carl looked away, back out the window. “Saying sorry. I said it all the time. Sorry for being a fuck up, sorry for not being there, sorry Nate hates me, sorry mum is gonna die sad about me. Sorry for stealing money and wasting your time. I’m sorry too, Mark, all day, and I don’t know why you’re saying it now, when it lost all value a long time ago. When you got sick of hearing it. You think I killed myself because you didn’t apologise?”
Mark reached for the dial on the radio and twisted it until static flowed.
And ebbs. Then all he can hear is his breathing, shallow and frantic in the darkness.
“Hello, Mark,” comes that voice.
“Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing you need to apologise for. Take your time.”
He presses the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, and his bare elbows bump against the curved ceiling of the tank. “Dr. Suda?" he asks. “What was that?”
“The simulation is a mirror.” They’ve gone over this, but Mark doesn’t interrupt. It’s a relief to shut the fuck up and listen while he gets his heart rate down. “An imaginative reconstruction of memory and possibility. The avatars you interact with will be faithful to your memory of them, but are not composed only of memory. To become dynamic, they also represent your current state of mind, your associate feelings and impulses, your biases, your misgivings. Carl didn’t believe your apology because you didn’t believe your apology.”
“You don’t think I’m sorry?”
“I think you’re sorry about a lot of things, but I believe, based on our discussions, you know you did your best as far as Carl was concerned. That after all the sacrifices you made for him, you can’t in good faith apologise for not having done so.”
“That’s not true.”
“Well. Carl will only fight you while conflict exists within you, Mark.”
“And you said there wasn’t a right answer.”
“There isn’t. There is only a replacement. A better memory to take with you going forward, and an opportunity to reflect on the process.” A pause, and then the voice asks, “Would you like to take a break?”
Mark drops his hands from his eyes. The air in the tank is perfectly regulated into imperceptibility. The peaks and valleys of the foam mattress under his body support each limb and joint perfectly. His voice is absorbed into the dense lining keeping him enclosed and does not echo back at him when he speaks. He imagines several feet of black earth above him. He imagines clawing his way through it.
“No,” he says.
The car would have come to a stop (like it always stopped) after that drive conducted in excruciating quiet. Mark kept driving instead. Beside him, Carl’s head snapped up from its droop.
“Hey. Mark. You missed it, my place.”
“I’m not taking you home, Carl. We’re going to the clinic.”
Mark could only glance so he wouldn’t veer off the road, but he saw what he anticipated seeing: his brother’s face open with surprise.
“I thought the policy was they wouldn’t take leavers back. Not at short notice.”
“Well, we’ll talk to them. I’m sure they can be lenient.”
“But it’s expensive, Mark.”
“I can afford it. We’ve been saving for a house deposit, and my credit is just fine. Nate will understand.”
The road rolled out on and on, a repetitive series of green lights and arrows and faceless buildings. The rain streaked like streamers across the windows.
“You shouldn’t do this, Mark,” Carl was saying. If Mark looked, he was sure he would see his brother’s dark eyes all full of tears, so he did not. “I’ll fuck it up again. Even if I complete the programme, I won’t be able to keep it up. Something bad will happen, or I’ll get low, like I got low this time. You’ll have to take time out of your workday to pick me up at the hospital, and drive me and check me in, and start the whole thing again, saving my life over and over and over. Just this unbreakable wheel, spinning forever.”
“I’ll take it,” Mark said. “Better a spinning wheel than a crash. If we have to do this over and over, we’ll do it. We’ll do it until something changes or never changes. Whatever it takes.”
Carl smiled now, tears greased down the sides of his nose.
They arrived in the parking lot of the clinic, which looked shabby on the outside, but Mark recalled had artwork on the walls and metal detectors at the door that locked automatically.
Mark embraced Carl there in the parking lot, heads ducked onto each other’s shoulder. It was different to that last time they came, with Carl white as a ghost and not saying much, too terrified of what his body was about to go through to show any sign of gratitude or love. Mark recalls how frustrating he found his silence, then, but now Mark feels like he is floating above it all, watching himself step back and clap Carl on his cheek, watching Carl duck his head and start towards that shabby building, stepping through doors that glow a brilliant and heavenly light, and he forces the words through his mind: this time, it will work out.
The car came to a stop after a drive conducted in excruciating quiet. Rain pattered off the windscreen. Mark turned off a radio that had been feeding them static in spurts, and let the engine idle.
Carl opened the door to get out of the car.
Mark put his hand on Carl’s arm.
“It’s going to be okay,” Mark said. “And I love you no matter what.”
Carl stared at him for a few seconds, and then smiled bleakly. His rough hand covered Mark’s in a gesture that seemed to say: not bad.
Then he left the car, and Mark drove away.
The rain was coming down on their heads as they stood in front of the parked car, in the middle of the street, fists raised. Mark wondered if the feeling of water pattering down on his head and streaming down his back was something the simulation had concocted, or something lifted from his own memory of rain, overlayed.
“Don’t you think this is a little, I don’t know,” Carl said, “macabre?”
“Getting in a punch up with my dead brother? Dunno what you mean, mate.”
“More than that.”
Neither had thrown a punch yet, but they circled around, waiting for someone to try.
“Because I’m not your brother,” Carl said, “I’m what Suda said. Just an avatar of yourself. Just a fragment of your consciousness, refracting back to you your own self-loathing, your guilt, your inadequacies as a man and a brother.” Mark took a swing. Carl jerked backwards, avoiding it and carrying on calmly. “Weird that a therapist would allow for self-harm like this, but trust the process, eh? That’s what they always told me, too. Put someone else in the driver’s seat. Jesus, mostly.”
“I just think if we knew how to fight properly, we’d have gotten somewhere. Don’t you reckon?”
Carl took a swing. Mark could feel it coming even before the wind up, the lift, the deployment, but he did not dodge. He’d never been punched before. Bone met meat, and then he was bowing forwards and watching blood patter in loose droplets onto the road between his feet. He felt a dull ache radiate out from the centre of his face, from the base of his teeth to the ache in his eyeballs. Like the time he had a toothache while on an overnight flight, or slammed his forehead into an overhanging cupboard door, or endured an afternoon hangover. Probably not like getting punched, his brain throwing together some likelihoods instead.
But it hurt.
“Gotten where?” Carl was asking, his voice sounding far away.
Mark straightened his posture again, raising his fists back into a defensive stance. “Somewhere better. Where you were well, or I could cope. Where we could tell each other the truth about things.”
“Is that what fighting does?”
Mark took a swing. Carl jerked backwards, avoiding it. “You’re pulling your punches,” he added, before clocking Mark in the face a second time, static swimming through his head instead of pain.
When Mark was still in school, he’d experienced an incredible amount of misdirected anxiety wanting to impress his teachers more than he wanted to learn anything. Another way he and his brother were different: Carl never seemed to give a fuck, perfectly content at being the bad twin starting from a young age, whereas Mark couldn’t fathom the kind of bravery it took to wag class, to be late with your homework, to talk back.
But sometimes it wasn’t all about Carl, the things he did, the things he didn’t do. Sometimes it was about Mark, doing right for the wrong reason. Which is all to say: he sits across from Dr. Suda, feeling as though he has greatly disappointed his therapist. As though healing from grief, recovering from what she had termed ‘survivor’s guilt’ (like Carl’s suicide was a war, and only Mark had made it home) came with a letter grade, and he was staring at a big red F.
He’s sitting across from her, in her nice office. He’s looking at the fiscus in the corner of the room as she speaks. Wondering if she waters it herself, if it’s plastic. He’d have to touch it to find out.
“I have an obligation,” she is saying, “to make sure that throughout this process, you’re not going to do yourself more harm than good.”
Unless it’s one of those sturdy, waxy plants. Then he’d have to put it in his mouth, like his primate ancestors, to figure it out.
“I’m not,” Mark says, drawing his attention away from the fiscus. “I promise.”
“So you understand why I had to pull you out just now.”
“I get it, but I’m just working this through.”
“Do you think that Carl would have wanted you to use his memory like that?”
Mark feels his back muscles stiffen as he says, “I thought this wasn’t about what Carl would have wanted.”
Dr. Suda re-clasps her hands, giving a sigh. For a moment, Mark wonders if she’d really made a mistake, or if it was tactical. Eliciting from him something she wanted him to say. She says, “You're right. But I don’t think that’s what you would want either.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Mark says. “I know what the objective is, but it feels small. This last moment. Like all the other moments before aren’t as important, somehow. There were probably a million and one things I needed to do to prevent this outcome, you know? And a million and one things I’d need to keep doing.”
“Or it came down to one thing that needed to be done,” Dr. Suda says. “And only Carl could have done it. He would have had to do it every day, of course, and some days are harder than others. But he would have had to choose to get better. And I think you know, deep down, that no one person can force another person to make a decision like that. I know I can’t, and people pay me to try.”
As silence fills the room, Dr. Suda picks up a book from her desk, turning a page. “Now,” she says, “I am going to recommend we discontinue this treatment. I’m happy to authorise the implanting of any of your more positive iterations, after a period of review—”
“No,” Mark says. “I want to go back in.”
“Mark, I’m really not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Just once more,” he says, and holds up his hands when he sees her expression. “I know it’s not really Carl, but I don’t really want my last run of this to be—what it was. I don’t need two last moments to be a shitshow. I want to say goodbye.”
Dr. Suda lets out a sigh, book flopping forward in her hands.
“For my sake,” Mark adds. “Not his. I promise.”
The car came to a stop after a drive conducted in excruciating silence. Rain pattered off the windscreen. Mark turned off a radio that had been feeding them static in spurts, and let the engine idle.
Carl opened the door to get out of the car.
“We used to tell each other everything,” Mark said. “Didn’t we?”
Carl stopped, then closed the door and resettled in his seat.
“Or am I delusional,” Mark continued. “And maybe I just told you everything and you told me some things.”
“I bet you didn’t tell me everything,” Carl said.
“Not literally everything, obviously. But I told you everything that mattered.”
“You waited on the gay thing.”
“Well, that was different,” Mark said, biting back against the usual rise of frustration. “What I mean is, you stopped talking to me. And I’m still trying to decide if that was because you stopped trusting me, or if—”
“If I was trying to protect you.”
“Neither explanation makes any sense.”
“Don’t they? Don’t they make perfect sense, especially together? You plant two seeds in the ground and they both come up green, but one is reaching for the sun and the other was born rotting, consuming itself, strangling itself, and there’s nothing the other can do about it. It just grows, or risks rotting too.”
“There’s plenty you could do,” said Mark. “I mean, I don’t know what a plant can do, for another plant, but if you have a diseased plant you can—water it, or move it, and get it what it needs, or whatever fucking plant metaphor thing that translates to getting the plant help before the plant stops answering his phone for months at a time and starts using narcotics.”
Carl laughed, and it was such a familiar sound—smokey, and freed, like something inside his chest had cut itself away—that Mark felt a dim and hurtful pulse in his heart through the brimming frustration.
“You know,” said Carl, “I can’t tell you anything new. There’s nothing I can say that would make this make any sense. No matter how many times you ask that nice doctor to plunge back in. Even if I was real.”
“I know,” said Mark.
Carl nodded to the car's dashboard. “You wanna flip the station,” he asked, “or shall I?”
Mark felt his throat close, but he managed to say, “Can we just sit here awhile? A few minutes. Then I’ll go.”
Carl was silent, at first, and then, gentle, “Okay, Mark.”
And they sat in silence. Mark held onto the wheel, watching the rain pattern down the windscreen, wondered if they’d start to repeat themselves if he watched long enough, or if the engine behind this virtual world was sophisticated enough that it could generate endless random patterns of falling raindrops, of those rivers that came together, that split apart.