You-You
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

There isn’t a hard edge to be found in the hut. Round walls slope into concave ceiling. Amoeba-shaped windows display the world outside: ferns, wavering in steam, and droplets dangling from speckled red toadstools. So vibrant, these exterior views could almost be cinemagraphs, mounted on soft grey walls, inside the climate-controlled seal. Erica knows it’s real, that jungle floor; she’s only just trudged through the muddy path, breathed in the hot, thick air. This is the only way to reach Benny Brom’s hut—on foot, by memorized coordinates, by paper map and compass, leaving no trace of data, as though she never exited the hovercraft station hours ago.

Dispensing with pleasantries, Benny leads Erica to the treatment chair, past the bubbling beakers and whirling machines, past the mushrooms of various sizes and shapes. Fine by me, she thinks, relieved to get straight to it, as he straps her in. He’s given up on appearances. She eyes his dirty pants, strung under his pot belly, hairy white stomach sticking out. Maybe he’s given up on life. How else could he exist like this—each day potentially his last, should he ever be caught.

“You can make me go away, right?” Yes, extraordinary circumstances have pushed her into this candor, but in truth Erica has always wanted to disappear. An avoidant personality type, says her therapist, “fragile” according to her mother. Erica doesn’t disagree, this is how she goes through the world, behind oversized shades, dark hair trimming her face like blackout curtains. “Someone else needs to take over,” she says.

“And someone else will.” Benny readies his syringe, the contents of which are a luminescent swirling green.

“Do you think I’m a coward?”

“You?” He scoffs. “What you’re going through, watching your child die? Never. With the right measure of pain, there’s something to learn, but when it floods, there are no lessons at all, just torment.” He sounds genuine, Erica thinks. This is how he rationalizes breaking the law, risking execution. “After the procedure, you don’t have to be present. You can choose to go somewhere else, for a while, when things get too much.” His voice sounds younger than he looks. Perhaps it’s all the solitude, preserving his vocal cords.

“Good.” She grimaces. “Will my son be able to tell the difference when I’m gone?”

“Nobody can, and that’s because you will still be you. It will still be you taking care of your son, which of course he needs.”

“You mean to him I’ll still appear to be me.”

“No, I mean you will be you.”

“Ah, yes, right—the model of me will be running things, not the me-me.”

“Right.” Benny nods. “Not the you-you. The real you will be inside.”

Erica thinks back over what she’s heard, in piecemeal, and in secret, about the procedure. “There’s something I don’t quite understand. Where exactly do you—you-you—go once the program is activated?”

“I refer to it as the inside place, which is different for everyone, somewhere you’ll regard as neutral, peaceful, certainly not extraordinary in any way. For me, it’s a little cabin.”

“You’re not there now, are you?”

“I assure you not.” Benny grins. “I want to be here. This is my life’s work.” He gestures to the rounded walls of the hut, the beakers and syphons, the sequencers and synthesizers, all the spores, the molds, the fungi.

“When do you go inside the program?” Erica asks.

“I don’t use it anymore. Nothing in my life is so intolerable.”

Nothing so intolerable. That’s how life was, for a long time. She’ll never have it again.

Benny’s eyes light up. “There’s been an advancement with this generation—very exciting developments.”

Though unable to share in his excitement, if this advancement means an opaquer blotting of life, she’s eager to know. “What is it?”

“Once you’re inside—in the inside place—the you-you can check on things.”

“How?”

“Look for a monitoring system of some sort, a device, typically a screen, through which you can see what’s happening, you know, out there.”

“Do I have to watch it?”

“Not at all. Ignore it. Take a peek. Watch as much as you like. It’s up to you.”

“Fantastic.” Her voice cracks.

“You’ll find other things to do, not much though. In my case: puzzles, an old book or two, a window to look out at the forest. None of it is real, of course.”

“I can’t imagine.”

“You’ll see what it’s like. Inevitably, there’s going to be some boredom. The program’s not designed to house you for more than a few hours at a time.”

Erica wants to rub her temples, but she’s strapped in—arms and legs. “But I can go back inside as often as I want?”

“Absolutely, you can. Choose your moments wisely, though—instances when your life is truly intolerable.”

When my son’s skin goes black, when it cracks, she thinks, when the toxin hardens every tissue, when he’s a lacquered doll—surely then. Yet almost every moment will be intolerable, from now until the end, and after the end, too. Just knowing she can escape, at any moment, though, Erica gets a crumb of comfort.

“I’m ready.”

“The procedure is not without its risks.”

“I couldn’t care less.”

“We no longer have the benefit of studies and trials, not since Bill C-980. I have to tell you that this generation is completely organic. Once I administer these nanos, they can never be removed.”

Erica jostles in her restraints. She envisions the nano-mind, nano-tumour, glowing and swirling, imposter in her brain. “Let me out!”

Benny unstraps the restraints, wrinkled hands working fast.

“I need some relief, not to be taken over!”

“I understand your concern, but you have to remember that they’re dormant unless activated. That’s integral to their programming.”

“They could evolve.” She leaps out of the chair. “They can lock me inside forever.”

“I assure you that can’t happen.”

“But how would you know? How do I know you’re not trapped in your inside place right now? How do I know I’m really talking to you, to the you-you? No, no, no. This was a mistake.”

§

Gone only a few paces along the muddy path, Erica switches on her Comcenter. The hut behind her, humming in levitation, drifts away, towards the river.

“Mom, where are you?” Maxwell’s small voice is jagged. Sliding her finger along her palm in an L, a hovering screen lights up before her, a rectangle carved out of the jungle. Though dim in his bedroom, she can still see the greying whites of his eyes. In a few weeks, they’ll be black. “Dad won’t come out of the bathroom. When will you be home?” He twitches, and she braces herself. The pain comes soon after, up through the spine. “I need you, Mom.” He lets out a guttural moan. Now, a shriek, like an animal being slaughtered.

Erica turns back, sprinting through the mud to catch the hut just before it floats off the river’s shore. Fortunately, the thing moves slowly, like a cloud drifting along the ground. After banging on the metal exterior, the hut comes to a halt, and with a hiss, it settles back down to earth.

Benny says nothing as he opens the door, stepping aside as Erica pushes past him. He follows her to the treatment chair.

“Put them in me,” she says.

§

Speed makes the world a simple graphic. Through the hovercraft window, the ocean is a slab of grey-blue metal. Sky overhead, black. Red line of sunset bisecting the two. Passengers mill about, no children anywhere—they’re all dead, dying, or in quarantine.

The modelling process should be done by now, but Erica hesitates to activate the program. Choose your moments wisely, Benny said. And what if the hovercraft explodes? What would it be like to die while on the inside? Watching your own body burn from the inside place, while the you-you fades out. Not so bad, it would appear, compared to really being there.

§

It’s dark at home, stuffy and a mess, as it is these days, in these times. Erica’s husband shuffles across the kitchen, shirt half untucked.

“You look different.” His bloodshot eyes give her a once-over. Can he see, somehow, what’s inside her? She can never tell him what she’s done. His mother was one of the unfortunates, for whom the nanos, Generation 1, ate away not only the cancer cells, but everything else.

What about the Bioprofiler, glowing blue on the wall? Can it tell? Benny assured Erica that neither human nor machine can detect the procedure.

“The break did me good,” Erica says. “You should take a day too. Get away from everything. Pretend you’re someone else.”

“I can’t.” He chokes up, looking about to bawl.

Erica gives her husband a wide berth, to hold off on the inevitable: the two of them, embracing each other on the floor, crying and rocking in the dark. Why’d she marry someone like her, neither one anchoring the other? The couple will max out their tranquillizer allotments, and they’ll sleep, though shallowly, conscious minds on standby, awaiting Maxwell’s cries from down the hall.

“Mom?” Maxwell’s voice rattles from his bedroom.

Erica lingers down the narrow hallway, touching the surface of the soft, smooth walls along the way. There’s only so much pain the mind can handle.

It was too late for Maxwell, having been exposed sometime between the toxin’s appearance and the imposition of quarantine on all prepubescents. It came up from the thawed icefields and travelled by breeze, the very means by which the plague had once been thought to spread. Since Erica saw her son’s first grey fingernail, the dread pushed her into a dissociated state in which she imagined herself to be a god, bored of immortality, bored of bliss, curious of human emotions, wishing to try out each and every one. What’s it like to watch your own child die? Not just any child, but one barely old enough to understand what was happening to him.

“Mom, where were you?”

“I had to go and get something. It was important.”

“Why’d you leave me?” He’s angry, of course he is. “It hurts.”

“I know.” She enters a code on the Bioprofiler. Only one pain reliever left tonight. There’s only so much pain the body can handle. Erica and her husband have never spoken of it outright—of helping Maxwell to move on, as it were, in some way undetected by the Bioprofiler. It’s in their shifting eyes, giving each other those looks, knowing what the other is thinking, knowing what other parents are thinking, or have already done.

In the few hours of quiet that night, Erica lies awake, wondering when she’ll go inside. She imagines it as Benny described it, a woodland cabin, quiet. No sobbing child. No husband desperately hanging on, covering her shirt in tears and mucus.

§

“Mom!” The screams jolt her awake. “It hurts!”

Erica begins her amble down the soft narrow hallway, caressing the walls. She listens to the hollow wails—ooooooooh, like a clichéd ghost. Soon, as the virus takes more of him, he’ll make no sounds at all, just a silent face, a screaming mask. Touching thumb to index finger, as Benny showed her, five times, she counts one, two, three, four, five.

§

Erica grips the edge of a leather recliner. She’s looking down: same black socks, same wrinkled skirt. Touching her face, she expects to feel warm skin, which she does. Pinching a lock of dark hair, she pulls it out to examine. This is too vivid to be a dream. Awareness, too crisp. Perception of space and time, too steady. Thoughts, too measured. Experience, too predictable. She takes in the room. It’s a home theatre, the sort found in the basement of a suburban home. Erica isn’t sure whether she’s ever been in one (inside an old home that she perhaps visited when she was a child) or whether she’s only seen such places in pictures. The room smells of wood and carpet, or what Erica approximates those scents to be, as both materials are rare in today’s world—more precisely, the world out there. It doesn’t matter, though, as nothing here is real; it’s all made of mind, her cells and their cells, intermingling. There’s a small door, one she’ll have to crouch to go through. That would be the way out, as there’s a red neon EXIT sign mounted above. Benny was right: the place isn’t extraordinary at all, and she does feel comfortable here, removed from her life, distant now, as though that life belongs to someone else, which it does, at least right now.

A remote control sits on one of the leather recliners. She recognizes the object from her childhood or perhaps from a museum or a photograph, though she’s never seen one so oversized and simple, like a toddler’s toy, just two large buttons on it, green and red. She presses the green one and the screen lights up.

She sees herself in pieces, the view flittering around, zooming in and out, as if a butterfly has been equipped with a camera. Erica kneels in the murk of the room, next to Maxwell’s bed. She watches her hand stroke her son’s grey forehead.

His moans drown out her voice, words of comfort going unheard.

Pressing the red button, Erica returns the room to silence.

She sits on each of the eight recliners. She paces around the room. As Benny warned, she grows bored, yet still not enough to return. And what of the puzzles and books, the things to keep her distracted? She looks under the seats, into the dim corners of the room. Nothing. Feeling the remote control in her hand, she senses a protuberance on the underside. Flipping it over reveals a chunky white button labelled TV. This must be it, the activity built for her, an odd choice as she doesn’t watch TV and hasn’t since childhood. She presses the white button, and the screen comes on. A woman stands on a patio, dressed in a long silk dress, holding a cigarette, which, oddly, Erica thinks she can smell, or the scent she infers to be burning tobacco. 1980s or ‘90s, judging by the limited colours, square aspect ratio, and grainy resolution. Erica doubts this was ever a real show, the Tuscan villa in the background appearing too fake, too much like a set to have ever been put on TV. “How long have you known me?” The woman bores her smouldering gaze into the camera.

 Reverse shot: a muscular man, shirt unbuttoned, thick shoulder length hair wafting in the breeze, bleeding red sunset behind. “Long enough to know that you’ve been lying to me.”

“What is this? A soap opera?” Erica touches her lips. Has she actually said this out loud? “Soap opera.” She says again—or thinks. “God, I hate soap operas. Why’d they give me this?”

Erica flips over the remote control and presses the green button. Now she sees herself as well as her husband, piled into Maxwell’s bed, all three of them crying. “Nope.” Pressing the red button, she takes in sharp breaths but stops. “I don’t have to breathe at all, do I?” She touches her lips.

Pushing her body backwards, the recliner flattens out.

§

After a time, Erica opens her eyes to see the grey ceiling. After the procedure, Benny told her this could never happen: falling asleep on the inside. But she does feel as though she’s slept—groggy yet gradually refreshed. If Benny was wrong about this, what else didn’t he know? Erica grows dizzy—but how? She’s on the inside. No blood vessels here, no oxygen to be deprived of.

Picking up the remote, she presses the green button, expecting once again to see the interior of Matthew’s room, fragmented views of her family crying. But a blue sky comes on, so brilliant it causes her to squint. She hears the soft sounds of lapping water and smells a salty breeze. “Am I dead?” She touches her lips. No, Erica realizes, her brain must still be alive to be running this program.

A child’s face fills the screen, haloed by the sun behind. She wonders if she’s witnessing a dream. Why not? She slept, deemed impossible. Why not a dream?

“Mom, we gotta go!” It looks like Maxwell, only his face is longer. “Mom!” That’s him, same curly hair, same full lips, yet now with all those bones, he looks angular and masculine, and his voice is deeper. At a turn of nausea, Erica opens her mouth to vomit, but only air floods out, or what seems to be air. Tripping over herself, she moves to the small door under the EXIT sign, relieved when it opens. Crouching, she goes through.

Erica falls hard, planting her face in the wet sand. The 8 a.m. sirens are blaring on the shore, and she feels the sun searing the back of her neck.

“Get up, Mom. It’s hot.” Maxwell comes back and pulls her up with his hand, cold to the touch. It’s artificial. The virus took his hands, but he’s been cured, hasn’t he? They must have found a treatment. How long was she inside?

Erica gets up on her knees. “Come here.” She pulls Maxwell toward her, his chest big now and boxy, almost like a man’s. His stomach, now lean. She wraps her arms around him. “Is this real?”

“Are you alright, Mom?”

“Where’d you go?”

“I’m right here.”

No, not you. You-you, she thinks, the one I left. The one who was supposed to die.

§

“I’m sorry to say but there’s nothing we can do.” The surgeon has that look on her face: you idiot. “This generation is completely organic. By now they’ve fused into your tissues.”

“So you can’t operate.”

Stepping away from the examination chair, the surgeon removes her gloves and pushes away her limp bangs, ashen-blond. “Even if I could extract them, it’d be illegal—nanos in my possession, you know what that means.”

“What can I do?”

“You could go back to whoever did this.”

“He’s dead,” Erica says. “Long ago.”

“Whatever you do, don’t activate the program. Right now, the nanos are dormant.”

Erica takes no solace in this, in what may only be a pretend sleep. Maybe one day they’ll decide to pull her inside. There’s no saying how far they’ll go—travel into someone else through a kiss, a handshake. Who’d stop them from coordinating between bodies, forming a great neural net across the globe, and eat humans away?

§

Truly dormant or not, they leave Erica present in the world, present to its triumphs and tragedies. Never again, she tells herself, at least once daily, for without pain, there’s no joy. The clinical trials, the miraculous results, the spring of life, the elation—she’d been swindled out of it all for a cheap cocoon, a slap-up theatre, and soap operas.

To be human is to feel all of it, she tells herself. Easy to say though, under a respite of some quiet years. Grass grows once again, real grass, and trees with needles, after the scientists shoot the cooling particles into the atmosphere. There’s nothing so far gone, it seems, beyond their remedies, like Maxwell’s hands, like the treatments that clean his blood. Erica finds solace, as her son approaches adulthood, to discover that he’s nothing like his parents, having miraculously evaded both nature and nurture, having no fragility as theirs, that beast of the mind—anxiety—pursuing relentlessly through life. There’s a calm about him, a deep cool lake, deepening year upon year.

Thus, nothing so intolerable, until it all topples, as it always does. Presumed eradicated, the toxin was in truth on hiatus, hiding in the base of the brain, growing resilient to the treatments, fortifying itself. One by one, the victims succumb, now all in the prime of early adulthood. The moment Erica first hears the news, frantically delivered by her husband between sobs and gasps, seeing him twisted in anguish, even before she can face her son, by muscle memory she puts thumb to index finger, counting one, two, three, four, five.

§

“Here we are again.” She touches her lips. Looking around, things have changed, thus have the nanos evolved in their dormancy, like the toxin. The leather recliners are worn. Big TV screen, washed out. The door is now adult-high, made of wooden slats, neon EXIT burnt out above. There are new windows, two of them, flanking the door. Outside is a dark green forest, the temperate sort she’d only seen in images, how the Pacific Northwest once was: giant trees, decaying stumps, and draping moss.

Picking up the remote, she presses the green button. There she is, in her angles, the butterfly flitting around. But instead of seeing the front hall at home, from which she entered the program, Erica finds herself on the beach. Time has vanished, evidently. Who knows how long. She isn’t surprised, though. She expects it now, for time inside is inconstant. On the sand next to her sits Maxwell, strong and vital by appearance.

By one hand, Erica covers an eye. She readies the other one above the red button.

Maxwell’s voice fills the inside place, or perhaps just Erica’s mind, the inside mind. “I barely made it back last time,” he says. “These years were an unexpected gift.”

Erica rubs her son’s shoulder. “There’s going to be another therapy. There’s nothing they can’t solve today.”

“If not, I’ll be okay.” He blinks away the wet in his eyes. “I’ve lived, that’s the important thing. What does it matter how long?”

Inside, Erica ascends to this truth. Why hunger for more? Life is always bookended by blackness. Touching her face, there are no tears. “Let me cry!” She touches her lips. Erica hits herself across the face but there’s none of the bite, just a blunt push. “Let me feel it!” Looking up again at the screen, she sees herself, view zooming in and out, but now she’s no longer with her son. It’s Erica, alone, but on the inside. She’s watching herself watching herself in that very room, in the home theatre, the cabin in the woods.

There’s a knock at the door. Erica squeezes her eyes shut. “No, no, no. This isn’t real. This isn’t real,” she chants. After a time, the knocking stops. Erica creeps over to the window and peers out. There she is, Erica, a double of her, knocking at the door. She gasps for air before recalling there is none. The apparition at the door isn’t real, she realizes. Neither is she, the her-her inside. There’s nothing so fearful here. There’s nothing here to fear.

§

“You’re not real.” Erica pulls open the door.

“Neither are you.”

“I know.”

“None of this is happening, not in the way it appears. We’re not separate, yet not the same either. We’re two parts of a composite.”

“Are you them, the nanos?”

“We both are. They’re part of us. We’re part of them.” Erica comes in from outside and stands before the other. “What is it you want?” Which one says this? It’s both of them speaking, or thinking, simultaneously.

“I want to go back, even if it hurts. But now there’s no way out.”

“That’s not true. This world is made of mind, as is the other one, as are all worlds.”

One Erica dissolves into the other, so too does the inside place fragment and fall away.

Erica awakens, once again, with her son on the beach. Yet now this world has progressed. It has progressed in tandem with the self, which has untangled itself, has come undone. Now this world is made of perceptions, of loose fragments, no longer of tight coils. Into her lungs, Erica draws in a breath, carrying with it the salt of the ocean.

About the Author

Benjamin Hollo

Benjamin Hollo is a writer and college educator based in Vancouver, B.C. In April 2023, he graduated from Humber College’s School for Writers. He holds an MA in Buddhist Studies from SOAS (University of London) and a PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Toronto.

Read more work by Benjamin Hollo.