When Peter Petersen entered the Marriott and saw no line at the check-in outside the convention hall, he knew he was late. There was a woman sitting at the table, staring at her phone.
He approached her and said his name.
She scrolled threw the document on the laptop. “I’m not seeing you.”
He pulled out his I.D. “I’m with the Bureau of American Innovation.”
She smiled. “We were wondering where you were.”
“Traffic,” he lied. He’d been sitting in a Denny’s Diner five minutes away, stress eating pancakes.
The woman replied, “Been there.” A small printer next to her spat out a name tag reading Agent P. Petersen. She handed him a packet, a product bag, and a presentation packet, each with the X-Perion insignia.
Peter asked, “Is there any difference between the packet and the PDF I got last week?”
She looked left and right then whispered, “People might actually read the ‘real’ thing. Please, your seat is printed on your name tag.”
Peter apologized his way to his seat in the middle of the row. The speaker, according to the packet, was Dr. Janice Abernathy. She made good use of the stage, spoke clearly and with no notecards. But Peter couldn’t focus on the presentation. That morning a nonfiction literary journal published a personal essay by his brother, Ross. Peter thought if he could call Ross he could keep some dignity. When other people called, Peter could say, Look, childhood was hard for both of us, and I don’t remember beating him to a pulp every other day but I have my copy. I even called him and congratulated him on his publication and to say I’m proud of him.
Sure, only his cousin Rachel had reached out via text message, but it told Peter to call her. It’s not like she’d be the only one to reach out. Peter’s gaze moved to his shoes and passed his shoes to the ground. He rocked himself in his seat as Dr. Abernathy continued her presentation. The air conditioner produced a low rumble, and the convention hall smelled and felt like an empty fridge. As both arm rests were taken, Peter crossed his arms over his gut. The gut was a new addition to his body.
Dr. Abernathy instructed everyone to open the boxes from their bags. As they did, she said, “I had this client, we’ll call him John, who was a big fan of that idea, ‘Anxiety releases the same chemicals as excitement.’ He thought if he could reframe his anxiety in his mind he could control it. But his mind only had his memories and our memories are complex.” She pointed to her headband. “The Synapse Band is a piece of therapeutic technology that copies the chemical releases of one mind and stimulates the release in another. In other words, you feel exactly what someone else is feeling. More accurately, their feelings fill in for your own. You won’t receive their memories; just the feelings that accompany them.
“I must offer caution: if you participate in the demonstration, you must follow my instructions. Side effects include muscle spasms and severe mood swings.”
This was all Peter needed to hear to decide he would not participate in the demonstration.
She tugged on her Synapse Band. “Adjust the O’s so they are over your temples.” She held up her phone and said, “Turn on your Bluetooth and make sure you’re connecting with the correct Synapse Band. Now, I want you to open the X-Perion Beta, open the Release menu and select “Freefall.’ This is from my memory. I recorded it while skydiving for the first time last April. First you’ll feel what I felt inside the plane, followed by the fall itself, and finally landing safely.”
Dr. Abernathy counted down and told everyone to close their eyes. Peter didn’t. Instead he watched the person next to him. His name tag read ‘Walter.’ His hair was so lacquered into place the Synapse Band couldn’t dent it. In fact, there wasn’t an inch of the man that didn’t look plastic; his skin was tan and pore-free and his starched shirt audibly rustled.
Dr. Abernathy counted down, and Walter’s eyebrows were raised in a ‘”this again” mold. And then they lowered and his forehead relaxed and tensed in a new way. He looked concerned with an edge of intrigued. His breath grew quick. He smiled and shook his head. He was trying to stop smiling. His composure held for a minute before his stark white teeth reappeared. Peter leaned in closer. Walter’s hand gripped the armrest. He started laughing and he wasn’t alone. Peter saw that this was nearly everyone’s reaction. Walter was clearly trying to stop himself but couldn’t, though he didn’t seem to mind. He slapped the armrest, hitting Peter. Walter opened his eyes and saw Peter looking at him. “Oh, man,” Walter stuttered, “I’m sorry, man. I’m just, yeah, feeling the heights,” and he was pulled back into the laughing. Laughing and crying. Dr. Abernathy reminded everyone to keep their bands on, to wait for “it.” Most listened. Walter looked like he was struggling against some wonderful torture. The laughing stopped, leaving complete silence.
Then came the release. It was like nothing Peter had seen. The room both exploded and imploded. Walter couldn’t stay in his seat. Barely anyone could. Walter grabbed the still-seated Peter by the shoulders, shouting, “I am so sorry but, holy shit, wow! You just have no idea how long it’s going and then, just: bam!” Walter turned and joined in the applause for Dr. Abernathy.
Everyone calmed down with the ‘Hammock’ setting in Relax. Most people were like Walter and just looked pleased with themselves. Dr. Abernathy told the crowd they could get lunch now. Peter was surprised it was already afternoon.
Peter grabbed his bag with the still-boxed Synapse Band, lunch ticket, and packet. As he stumbled over the very relaxed Walter, he was sure he would advise to invest only if they wanted to do absolute evil. He felt nauseous and dizzy from standing too quickly.
After the air-conditioned Marriott, Peter could feel the Orange County heat in his bones. The ambient sounds of the planes orbiting John Wayne Airport grumbled under the chatter of the people in line at the trucks. Feeling he would just eat what he got later, Peter stood in line for the burrito truck when a hand dropped on his shoulder. Peter turned and met the beatific face of Walter.
“What are you getting, bro?” Walter still wore his Synapse Band.
Peter shrugged into the conversation. “Carnitas, probably.”
Walter slapped Peter’s shoulder with unearned familiarity. “Nice. I’m thinking pollo.”
“Yeah. This is amazing. I’m usually so stressed out. You have no idea.”
“Great,” Peter said. He waited a few seconds and turned to the front of the line. He placed his order, handed over his lunch ticket, and stepped aside.
Walter got to the order window. He gestured to the menu but sounded half asleep, “I was totally secure in my pollo order. Now, I see ‘al pastor’ hidden at the bottom of the sign.” The guy taking Walter’s order gave him a what-can-you-do-shrug. Walter decided, “Al pastor. Final answer. No tip jar? Unacceptable. Here’s a fiver, bud.”
Peter thought Walter was a bozo. He was amused and horrified that Walter continued to stand next to him but wasn’t expecting Walter to say, “Hey, you look super familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?”
Peter pointed at the Marriott.
Walter squinted. “No, bro. Wait. Did you go to Mizzou?”
“Uh – no.” Peter tried to stop himself but out came, “But my brother did for two years.”
Walter took off his Synapse Band with a big grin. “No way! You’re Ross Petersen’s brother?”
“Older brother, yeah.”
“This is so crazy. I haven’t spoken to him in years.”
Peter tried to inspire the concern that stops a conversation. “Me neither.”
Walter looked concerned. “Man, that’s weird. Is everything okay?”
Peter shrugged. “Yeah, he’s doing fine last I heard.” No way in hell was Peter going to tell Walter about the essay.
Peter thought Ross was already back on Walter’s map, so he’d probably find the essay. Peter wondered if Walter was the kind of guy who would tell everyone in the industry the details as if the thing was a gospel pertaining to the death of Peter’s career. Ultimately, Peter decided he could put Walter in touch with Ross as it looked better than actively hiding things.
So Peter asked, “Do you have his old phone number?”
“The one he had at school?”
“It’s the same number.”
The server at the ‘Pick-Up’ window called their orders. Peter told Walter to get in touch with Ross and have a nice day before walking off. Peter couldn’t help but think of Walter as a domino ready to tip over everything. Peter didn’t know why he always assumed there would be a domino in the first place.
Walter jogged up behind him. “Wait.”
Peter turned sharply. “For what?”
“Well, I’d just feel weird calling him out of the blue.” Walter set his food and Synapse Band on the trunk of the car next to them. “Can you give him my card the next time you see him?”
“No. We don’t talk. Jesus, like, friend him on fucking Facebook or something. And take your food off of whoever’s car this is. This doesn’t belong to you. None of this belongs to you.”
Walter looked like he’d been slapped and scrambled together his things.
Peter felt guilty. “Sorry. It’s just ‘brother stuff,’ y’know?”
“I’m an only child.”
Peter snapped, “I don’t care. Have a nice day. Get back in your creepy mind hammock.”
Walking away, Peter was annoyed but couldn’t avoid connecting the way he just barked at Walter with how he’d try to shut arguments down with Ross. He thought about apologizing but was already back at his car. When he turned around, Walter was gone.
Peter got in his car, turned on his phone, seeing two missed calls and seventy-eight notifications on Facebook, shoved it away and unwrapped the burrito he definitely didn’t need to eat. As he stress ate, he reiterated an old promise: if Ross called him, he’d call back. Or even a text. When Ross emailed him the article explicitly telling Peter he was requesting approval, Peter responded. No approval was given, but still. With nothing to distract him he checked the two missed calls, both from work. He wouldn’t call Ross that day.
A text message from his cousin Rachel said, r u ok?
Peter selected, ‘Voice Call.’
Rachel picked up on the first ring and spoke before Peter. “Are you okay?”
He put it on ‘Speaker’ and lowered the seat back, resting the phone on his forehead. “I take it I was right to be worried?”
“He’s not answering me.”
“Of course, he isn’t. It’s still Ross. I bet he’s just sitting with Mom in that house, still feeling sorry for himself. How much you want to bet he has a five-hundred-plus-page memoir version.”
“I’m going to call him again. I have to call him. I never saw him with bruises. That whole summer in ’04, when we were at the beach, I never saw a bruise.”
“Yeah, I love the part on,” Peter picked up the copy of the journal he bought that morning, “‘showed his teachers the bruises.’ The implication being that they did nothing, meaning everyone failed him and favored me.”
“I’m going to call him.” She sighed. “Are you going to be okay, Pete?”
“Yeah, I got a full day planned. I might fiddle around with this actual mind control device for work.”
“Good. You stay busy, Petey. And look, I want you to know I’m only responding like this because I know both of you.”
“Have you talked to anyone else in the family about this?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be this worried. If you need anything, call me.”
And she hung up. Peter held his phone like it was a small animal only pretending to be dead. The Facebook notifications number rose with every refresh. Peter pulled out of the parking lot, merging into the traffic on the 405. The sun beat through the window onto his stomach, where the burrito met the Denny’s Grand Slam. They did not get along. Sweating and pained, he unbuckled his seat belt to allow some expansion. Acid reflux seeped up the back of his throat. Peter scanned the radio, finding nothing. The traffic wasn’t moving. He had just exchanged one parking lot for another. The sun glared off the X-Perion bag. He took the Synapse band out of the box. He downloaded the beta app and got out the manual. The words, DO NOT USE UNSTABLE SETTING WHILE OPERATING HEAVY MACHINARY, were printed in large letters on the back. The Synapse Band absorbed some of the sweat as he placed the O’s over his temples.
When the X-Perion app finished downloading, he scanned the options. There were four main menus: Active, Relax, Release, and Personal. Each category had about twenty sub-options. Hoping to calm his nerves, Peter selected the Relax setting titled, ‘Sunday Drive.’
Yeah, that’s nice. In fact, that’s pretty much what it feels like. This isn’t the Sunday drive where he’s driving, but like when he was younger and his dad was still alive and behind the wheel. The tension started to leave his neck and shoulders. He could sense the little things that were passing outside the car. He felt a little stoned but not quite. Just like someone was in control and it wasn’t him. His grip on the wheel loosened, not like he let go but loose enough to allow blood to flow back to his knuckles. Peter turned off the AC and unrolled the windows. There was a nice breeze, even in the congestion. In fact, the traffic was clearing up. There had been a car accident. A sedan was upside down. In the inverted backseat, Peter saw a baby seat still buckled into the seat. He thought it must be a good brand. He forgot how much he liked driving.
Starting when Peter turned eighteen, he and Ross would just drive around. They were dumb sometimes. They were kids. Peter wondered about the ages of the crashed car’s occupants.
One time, Peter was drunk-sick and lying in the backseat, watching the street lights pass overhead. Ross asked him to check out something in the front. From the passenger seat, Ross held the steering wheel with one hand while shouting, “Cruise control!” Peter sobered up quick and demanded Ross get back in the driver’s seat. As Ross clambered over the center armrest, the car swerved from side to side. Neither of them were even buckled in. How could Ross be so careless? The mellowness of ‘Sunday Drive’ was losing to the memory. Peter pulled off the freeway and into the parking lot of a furniture store as memory-Ross intoned, “They would laugh about this someday.”
Thinking he had turned off the device, Peter accidentally hit Play Next. ‘Midnight Window,’ an unstable setting that didn’t feel too far off from ‘Sunday Drive.’ Same looseness in the muscles. Same feeling that there was nothing he could do. But it was mixed with a loneliness and anxiety.
Peter began going through everything he wanted to say to Ross. But hadn’t he already said everything in the email. It took Peter days without sleep to write a response to Ross’s essay. Peter had the text of his response memorized because he needed to find where Ross would just ignore everything he wrote and publish. Peter had written: You make a lot of accusations that don’t align with my memory. The most troubling, most inaccurate part is the physical abuse you claim I performed. Are you really claiming you never took the first swing? I’m not happy we fought. But you saying I beat you, even if you ‘forgive me,’ is such horseshit. Even things you get right, like me calling the cops and getting us away from Mom, you make me look like an asshole. “When our mother asked the officers to hug her children goodbye, Peter triumphantly robbed me: ‘No.’ I remember my brother’s fists, like hardened rocks.” I ‘robbed’ you of mom? I toilet-trained you because that woman was so stoned you were getting rashes at four. I’m glad she’s gotten help but you’re trying to heal ‘her’ in the past at my expense. I remember that night. I was crying. I’m not saying don’t forgive her but I’m proud I called the cops then. I was seven years old. Having to do that was a grenade between me and her. Ross, if this gets published as is it's going to be a grenade between us. It might already be. Maybe it hurt so much because I really do love you.
Peter didn’t mean to get obsessive, but he began going over the email, changing one sentence for another or choosing a different excerpt from the essay. The problem was the verbal stuff. The mean little things. One scene he wished wasn’t true was when Peter broke his arm skateboarding. After Peter’s first day back from school, the cast was covered in notes from his friends. While my brother zoned out at some reality show, I snuck up behind him with a Sharpie. I wrote, ‘Get Well Soon – Ross.’ He hadn’t noticed me yet, so I drew a sheep to test my luck. When I saw Peter at the breakfast table the next day, I saw that he had taken a Sharpie and covered everything I did. He had to cover some of the things his friends wrote just to cover me. But stuff like that didn’t have the impact of saying: My brother stood in the living room not taking the letter I brought back from Mom. The punch collided with my jaw like lightening on a clear night. The kind of out of nowhere that had become so frequent I believed it was natural.
Peter rested his head against the car window frame, not realizing these feelings were stimulated. He thought about how it’s never just one fight with family. Maybe he was right to be angry. Maybe when he loved someone like they’re a part of him, it’s easier to hate them. He could hate someone who’d forgive him. He collected bruises from his family too.
Peter ran his hand through his hair, knocking the Synapse Band askew and breaking the connection. For a moment, Peter lost control of his body. The car rocked back and forth as he twisted in the driver seat. His phone vibrated with an incoming call but his hand was stuck in tensed claw.
When he finally was able to accept the call, Rachel asked, “Holy shit it took me hours to get him.”
Peter’s voice shook. “Was he—” but he couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Are you crying?”
“I’m trying a new product. Was he not answering?”
“It was busy. Just beep-beep-beep.”
“Have you talked to anyone else?”
She said, “No one outside the family. You?”
He shook his head. “No, you’re the only one who’s reached out to me.”
Rachel asked, “Have you checked Facebook?”
Peter looked at the icon on his phone. “It says ninety-nine plus notifications. I don’t want to deal—that’s a problem for tomorrow. Say, what would you think about a product that literally changes how you feel?”
Rachel paused. “I’d want to know who would benefit from that. Like, data collection.”
Peter opened up the Synapse manual. “Well, apparently I need to let it change me back to normal.”
“I really don’t know. Can you call me later? Just a check-in?”
After Rachel said goodbye, the anxiety started creeping back in. Soon, Peter’s hands were tensing up. He felt manic, as if everything inside his head had been coiled into a spring. As his mind experienced unspooling, he found the section in the manual on Unstable settings. It read that if you use the unstable setting and cannot calm down, simply select one of the Stable settings from any category. This will allow your brain to focus its anxiety in a new direction. Peter looked at the example pairings and found ‘Midnight Window’ paired with ‘Morning Run’ in the active category.
‘Morning Run’ took a few minutes to feel good. Peter started to even out. He knew this feeling—less calm and more focused. He got out of his car and began jogging, hopping in place. There was a couple with a child who were staring at him from the entrance to the furniture store. How long had they been watching him? They were looking at Peter like he was a lunatic but that was fine. He jogged past the couple into the store and asked to use their restroom. They said no. That was okay, he thought. He was in the zone.
Peter got in his car and started for home. He thought he should get his surfboard out of storage. It was only 4:00 p.m. He had time to get over to Westminster and grab his board and wetsuit. The water wouldn’t be cold enough for a wetsuit. He’d just be wearing it to cover his gut, so to hell with the wetsuit. He was chubby in his twenties, and he’ll probably continue to be so in his thirties. He should just accept some things about himself.
At least if Peter started surfing again, he’d be doing something he cared about. Checking his phone, the number of notifications from Facebook made him feel like he should just delete his account. What could he write in response to over a hundred notifications? But he still cared what other people thought of him. That’s something to work on, too.
When Peter got back onto the 405, ‘Morning Run’ had run its course and he was right back in traffic. He should have found a restroom before and now he was in the center lane and no one was moving. As a distraction, he opened the Personal category in the X-Perion app. It said: This Account Has No Feelings. To test, he hit record though he had no idea what he wanted to record. He tried to get back to how being excited about surfing or just remember that Rachel still called, even if she was the only person in the family to call. Instead, Peter panicked as a long, whistling fart came out. He begged not to shit himself and when he stopped farting, it felt like a weight lifted.
Peter decided to find a restroom before he compromised the lease on his Kia Sorrento. As he waited for the off-ramp, he played the untitled memory back. It was a short feeling, but there was an option to slow it down. The fart got stretched out, too, but so did the relief that he hadn’t embarrassed himself. Everything was okay, he thought. And even if it wasn’t, the worst wouldn’t be too bad. Peter didn’t know he felt that, and it was nice to know the moment was more complex.
Finally back off the 405, Peter turned off the feeling and waited at the red light. Sure, he still had to go but it wasn’t as dire. He wasn’t worried about anything. The world wasn’t ideal but it was alright. He started recording again, leaving the file unnamed. Two boys in the SUV to his right were laughing at a movie playing in the headrests in front of them as their mother looked like she was a thousand miles away. Peter wanted to remember times like this in his childhood; they made him miss Ross, start a family of his own, or try online dating again. Family hurts each other sometimes. The human feeling we get from each other is never pure.
The light turned green. Halfway through the intersection, with the Synapse Band still recording, Peter heard tires screeching and the passenger side door buckling against the weight of a truck that had run its red light.
The glass of the driver side window screamed into a million pieces as it connected with Peter’s head rendering him unconscious. He wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and as the steering wheel pressed into his stomach at the right yet wrong angle, he farted. Then he shit himself. Peter bounced around the car collecting a broken arm, two broken ribs, a bruised pelvis, and a concussion, with his fart staying in the driver’s seat like a ghost.
The trauma overloaded the Synapse Band recording capabilities, like a film strip where every frame was from a different movie. Sometimes the feeling repeated, as if Peter kept returning to certain memories. The one he returned to the most in that cottony out-of-body state was from when he was twelve. Ross and Peter moved in with their grandfather in Seal Beach. Peter was excited about surfing but wasn’t any good yet. He wasn’t supposed to go by himself, let alone at 6:30 a.m. before school started. Most mornings, Seal Beach had a small break but that morning a storm was coming in. By the third time he paddled out, the waves were well over his head and the clouds above were twisting and grey.
He was beginning to think he should just head home, but when he saw the next set coming in any fear got pushed aside. Sure, the wave was big but he paddled as hard as he could until he felt the thrust from the wave was outpacing his arms. He stood up and turned right. At once, the only sound was the air and water passing him and the board bouncing along the water. It was probably only a thirty-second ride but in Peter’s mind it lasted all morning. He ran across the sand to get ready for school. When he got home, he tried to explain how it felt to Ross. They were whispering so their grandpa wouldn’t know Peter had snuck out.
Ross asked, “Can you teach me?”
Peter agreed. While it’s true that the promise was never kept, Peter meant it because he had felt something he couldn’t quite explain and he needed to be understood.