Story Excerpt

What We Hold Onto

by Jay O'Connell

I needed help.

Even though I’m not that kind of woman. I don’t do personal trainers, life coaches, social media consultants, masseuses or pedicures.

But when it came to Mom . . . well. I was out of my depth. With Michael out of the picture, the boys at school on the West Coast, and the ParaSoft antitrust suit heating up, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. So I found a contractor on TaskMaster. A Simplifier. A Nomad.

I paid for an hour and made an appointment to meet him in a public place, to check him out before hiring him.

Faraday’s, a real-time café a five-minute walk from my condominium, was blessedly dark and cool after the trek through the blistering August sun. I pinched my sundress away from my body, letting the cool air circulate against my flesh. At least I wasn’t having another hot flash.

The café smelled pleasantly of espresso and toasting bread. Invisible wires running through the huge plate glass windows, conductive carbon nanotubes, turned the place into a Faraday cage, hence the name; cell and network signals couldn’t penetrate. A local repeater limited to credit transactions made the paypoint work.

I reflexively checked my feed in my overlays, a newish pair of Serendipity Varihues set to camouflage. The network outage icon pulsed a dull orange. Duh. A headline in my news cache caught my eye, because it was the kind of thing I’d taught my news-agent to exclude; a pair of American tourists had been thrown from the balcony of their honeymoon suite by one of the Climate Coalition’s terror cells. I blinked into it, and caught the name of the hotel in a highlight. Oh. We’d honeymooned there ourselves, Michael and I. They kept sending me coupons. I excised them from my address book. I didn’t care if I ever heard from the Belize Paradise Suites again.

I was nervous, which was ridiculous. I blinked up Con’s profile from a cache. Tall, lean, muscular, arms folded over the typical Nomad black pajamas, clean shaven with his hair tied back in a ponytail. His smile understated, his eyes curiously shining blue-green in a dark skinned face that gave no clue as to his ancestry. Many Nomads used a carcinoma prevention mod that resulted in dark skin.

But I felt self-conscious beside him, as I’d allowed myself to grow pale, let my dirty blonde hair get age-inappropriately long. Not a fashion statement, mostly inertia, but still.

I waited while the young people around me chatted, or ostentatiously read huge, unwieldy, classic and popular hardcover novels, or simply stared off into space, eyeing cached content in their wearables.

At Faraday’s, every wall and table surface was laminated with kitschy print-based memorabilia; from the ridiculous to the sublime. Newspaper clippings, comic book pages, advertising flyers, receipts, hand-written letters, postcards from vacation spots long since vanished beneath the waves.

The barista called out my order—a toasted everything bagel with everything, cream cheese, lox, purple onion, and capers. I retrieved it and walked it back to my table. I tapped my foot and sipped an iced cold-brew coffee.

I glanced up to catch Concord pushing through the door. His photos didn’t do him justice. He had high cheekbones, a strong chin, and still clean shaven, no piercings or digital skincraft evident, but then, Nomads seldom displayed such things in public.

The novel readers and starers-into-space were sneaking peeks at him but avoiding eye contact, in that age-old, New England way. Prejudice against Nomads was muted in the commonwealth, and oddly I’d picked a man who could work as a model to help me clear away clutter. He was in great shape. When your body is your only permanent possession I guess you maintain it.

His face lit up as he recognized me from my profile pic.

I felt a shiver, head to toe. Not a hot flash. You know within a minute or so of seeing a man if you . . . you know. Now and then, a guy might grow on you, but in general, that’s what it takes. Sometimes you change your mind, the guy is a jerk, but if it isn’t there in thirty seconds, it is never going to happen. Con had it. A great deal of it.

He closed the distance between us to take my proffered hand in a firm, warm grip. His skin was rougher than Michael’s, but then, he did more with his hands than gesture and type.

“Ms. Bauer?”

“Call me Sophia.”

He nodded. “I’m Concord. Or Con. If you like one syllable.”

I forced myself to look at him. “Can I buy you coffee?”

He laughed. “I should buy it myself.”

The barista, a heavily pierced heavy-set woman, in fact, did seem to be giving him side eye. He got up and walked over and paid cash, stuffing a rather impressive tip into the glass jar next to the sales point reader. The barista was unmoved, still frowning. Had she been outsourced, downsized, displaced by Nomadic labor? Or was she simply prejudiced?

“You’ve eaten?” I said as he reseated himself, holding a tiny ceramic cup.

He nodded. “I’m good,” he said. He locked eyes with me. “I’m sorry about your mother,” he said.

I attempted a casual shrug. “She’s a hundred and two years old. She’s had a good life.” Already, she was creeping into the past tense in my thoughts, even though she wasn’t exactly dead.

“She’s a pack rat?”

Not really, I thought. The house I’d grown up in had been cluttered, but the clutter represented genuine interests and activities. Arts, crafts, fashion, interest in the world around us.

He noticed my frown at the term. “It’s not an insult. I’m just trying to get a sense of what you need me for. You’ve seen my resume. And my bond. What else would you like to know?”

Concord was bonded for five million; should he somehow steal or damage anything while working for me, the collective would reimburse me that amount, no questions asked.

“I wanted to see if we clicked,” I said. He’d folded his hands next to the espresso, his posture relaxed but also detached, as if he was a visitor in this tableau. An anthropologist studying a remote Amazonian tribe.

He nodded, smiling, but said nothing. I flashed back horribly on a few weeks of post-separation panic dating. The phrases, “long walks on the beach,” and “I enjoy fine dining,” flitted through my mind, blotting out temporarily the ability to think of anything to say.

I no longer wanted my huge reeking bagel. I took a small bite anyway, sending a shower of crumbs, poppy, and caraway seeds cascading down the front of my sundress, which I decided to ignore rather than paw at ineffectually.

“You going to drink that?” I asked inanely, focusing on his coffee.

He picked up the small handmade ceramic cup and took a tiny sip, his eyes closing, apparently overwhelmed by the punch of the oily crema floating on top.

“Very good,” he said. He set the tiny cup down carefully, still mostly full.

“You had a brain tumor.” My statement came as an unpleasant surprise to both of us. I took another bite of my bagel.

He nodded, his expression flickering for only a moment. The tumor had been in his bio. “Yes. I’m in full remission.”

“You used to write code?” Many Nomads were coders. Nomads had to have portable skills.

Another cautious nod. “I still code. But I don’t do it professionally much anymore.”

“So now you do this Simplifying thing.”

“I find it satisfying,” he said. “And I’m good at it.”

I found myself admiring the muscles in his forearms and his broad, strong hands splayed out on the coffee table. I pushed that thought away. I could have specified a woman in my search, but I had to empty both the storage spaces and Mom’s place—the condo she’d moved to after selling the home I’d grown up in—so I’d picked a big, healthy young man.

An entirely practical decision.

I cleared my throat. “I’m not sure, exactly, when I’m going to need you.”

“I can help with the paperwork for your mother. With suspension, or termination. I’ve done that before.”

‘‘No!” I said, much too loudly. “No. That’s my job.”

“I understand,” he said.

Now I had to explain myself. “There’s no advance directive. No granting of medical power of attorney. No will.”

“That makes it more difficult. I’m sorry. I’m here to help in any way I can.”

His eyes combined blue and green in complex ways. I didn’t know exactly what you’d call the color. The word “exquisite” came to mind. Like most Nomads he didn’t use a wearable; he had implants, though I wasn’t sure of which generation hardware he had installed. I suppose he wore UV contacts to stave off cataracts, but I couldn’t see them.

“What is your current availability?” I said, to fill the silence, after realizing I had nothing else to say.

“I’m finishing up with another client. I’ll be wide open next week.”

I’d sorted through profiles for an hour and picked Concord after a lot of deliberation. But I’d known I shouldn’t hire him from the moment he’d sipped the espresso. The look on his face had torn something loose inside.

I had a life; two mostly grown kids, a career, a condo, a soon-to-be ex-husband. I’d done the romance thing, the wife thing, was still doing the mom thing, technically. I had zero use for the feelings coursing through my body. They were as meaningless as my hot flashes. I realized I was chewing my bottom lip and made a smile instead.

“I’ll call you,” I said.

*   *   *

I went to the gym I’d been avoiding for the last few months and swallowed a maximizer tablet that would multiply the health benefits of the work tenfold.

I synced my overlays to the treadmill and ran though a montage of beaches at sunset, redwood forest trails dripping with dew, echoing stone canyons; I set a filter for places that still existed somewhere on the planet, nothing historical. Nothing that was gone. There was a sadness to those views that ate at me, like lists of recently extinct species. Not motivating.

A little bronze medal from my healthcare group lit up after three miles, and I fell into the cooldown. I stumbled as I slowed and felt the padded grippers of the treadmill catch me before I could smash my teeth out.

Then I sat in the sauna longer than was medically advisable, inhaling the thick steam, thankful, as always, for the little break from reality afforded by leaving the overlays in my locker.

Fresh scrubbed and pink, I took inventory in the changing room’s full-length mirror. The women dressing and undressing around me fit mostly into one of two easily visible categories; pre and post baby. I looked good . . . for the post baby crowd. Grading on that curve.

I had empirical evidence that I was still technically attractive to men my age from the overwhelming response to my profile during the horrible dating phase; I’d sorted through hundreds of profiles, only half of whom I would categorize as hopeless losers, basement dwellers, players, and sociopaths.

But I didn’t see much attractiveness in the mirror.

I saw only the woman I had been in my twenties, when I’d last dated. Not who I was now, except as a set of defects and slippages. I considered, briefly, again, a few of the cosmetic procedures, which were so common now.

So common. I’d looked at the befores and the afters.

Did I want to be an after?

The cats swarmed me when I returned to the condo, skimming figure eights around my ankles as I made my way to the kitchen to split a cup of kibble between the two ceramic bowls next to the ever-trickling cat fountain. Cutie, or as I not-so-secretly called her to my kids’ dismay, the Fat One, noisily crunched her bowl down, while Cleo, the Skinny One, turned up her nose and hopped up on the counter to pierce me with her fathomless green eyes. She blinked very slowly.

Cutie had already moved over to Cleo’s bowl, scarfing down her portion too, lickity-split. I sighed.

My husband had bought them for the kids. Kids needed pets. I liked cats, but that hadn’t been my decision. Yet somehow, I’d ended up taking care of them.

Michael’s new lady friend was allergic.

I scratched Cleo behind her ears. Why wasn’t she eating? She seemed skinnier than I’d remembered. I ran my fingertips through her short gray fur, as she tilted back her head and purred.

I invoked the hospital’s patient cam feed and watched Mom sleeping, intubated but still oddly robust looking. Well. A coma isn’t sleep. It’s more profound. In another week they’d reclassify her as being in a permanent vegetative state, even though her brain wave activity was ambiguous.

Mom hadn’t wanted to talk about death, and it hadn’t seemed like she needed to, until she did and it was too late.

She’d been a terrible patient for decades. She’d worn out two sets of kidneys, two livers, and a pair of lungs after taking up smoking at age ninety, but time had caught up with her in the form of SOS—sudden-onset, systemic failure—a poorly understood autoimmune disorder caused, maybe, by mismatched body parts.

People lived longer and longer, but they still died. At 102 she was two years older than the median lifespan for those with Platinum Medical.

She wasn’t a good candidate for suspension; there were no near-term SOS cures, so her insurance wouldn’t pay for it. She hadn’t bought a supplemental policy, which in a way was an indication of her wishes.

But a decade’s suspension was painfully almost within reach if we spent her entire estate and added a hundred K or so ourselves. There wasn’t enough equity left in our condo, since our low-lying neighborhood had been adjudicated a Sacrifice Zone; we might never slip beneath the waves, with geo-engineering and the MBCA (Massachusetts Bay Climate Abatement) and all that, but if we did, there’d be no insurance payout, and that depressed property values, big time. We’d lost a half million in equity overnight.

Half of our neighbors were underwater on their loans. Ha ha.

Still. We could scrape together the money, though the boys would miss at least a semester of classes while they declared themselves financially independent and applied for loans. . . . I had to make this decision for her. The chance of a spontaneous remission, of the paralysis reversing itself, shrank hour by hour, day by day.

I blinked up her medical chart and punched a graph icon in a grid of stats; today’s chance of remission was less than one in a hundred. I could see the line sloping away, downward.

She’d left this up to me. Suspension or cessation of life support. I hadn’t been able to find any kind of will or medical power of attorney in her effects. I’d turned her place upside down, looking for something. Anything, that would indicate her wishes. Mom had always kept little secrets, choosing to share her thoughts only when she was sure of them.

It shouldn’t have been that hard a decision to make.

But it was.

My wearable tingled, a blink from my eldest, Miles, at Berkley. He loved me and needed money. By the time I’d gotten dressed and ready to go, there was a second blink, from Sky, my baby who’d finished his freshman year at USC. He just needed money. They’d stayed on the West Coast this summer, close to their respective universities, rather than witness up close the dissolution of their parents’ marriage. They seemed to be taking it pretty well. The eye rolling, when we’d assured them our split had nothing to do with them, had been reassuring.

The next blink pulsed red, high priority, and was from Mom’s storage facility. There had been a roof leak, and one of her units had been affected. I needed to come and document any damage for insurance purposes. I felt a shiver of nausea at the thought.

I blinked Con.

“Are you available now?”

His response was nearly instantaneous. “I can be.”

I blinked him the address and told him about the water damage.

“Give me an hour,” he replied.

“I’ll meet you there.”

*   *   *

My Electra runabout took me to the storage place out on the beltway. It was my Mom’s parents’ stuff that had been leaked on. Christ. Tons of furniture. Paper. Documents. Obsolete cameras and electronics.

To distract myself from the horror of Mom’s storage space nightmare I watched a documentary on Nomads on the windshield I tinted to full opaque as the runabout purred through city traffic. I’d picked a sedate one that didn’t focus on orgies and consciousness modification.

A majority of Nomads lived in normative exclusive heterosexual marriages. Well, a slim majority, like 55 percent. The lack of community property did seem to accelerate the process of family creation and destruction; a majority of Nomads were Tribe affiliated, but 20 percent were Globalists, unaffiliated. Tribes were like extended families, consciously created, often around language groupings or vocational, creative, or religious beliefs.

What looked an awful lot like class distinctions separated the tribes; different buy-in amounts, differing health care practices . . .

Nomads weren’t exactly communists; the collective worked in many ways like a landless nation-state with high taxes and generous if oddly constrained benefits. It issued visas, interceded for its citizens when they ran afoul of other states, and took care of its sick, elderly, and insane with its own healthcare system.

Child rearing arrangements were variable, and felt odd. Many kids divided their time between birth parents and immersive camp-like teaching retreats that were tribe affiliated. Really it was no weirder than the boarding schools, foster parents, and blended families in the wider world, but somehow . . .

I recalled a quote, an author, who said growing up was the realization we were born in the wrong family.

As my runabout exited the beltway, I watched a scene on a beach on the Pacific coast, on the Olympic peninsula, a huge crackling bonfire at sunset.

The flames were encircled by a group of brightly colored men and women singing in a language I’d never heard before, presumably one of the Nomad tongues, the constructed languages.

Their bodies were sheathed in shifting skins of flowing color, seething forms seeming to leap from individual to individual. The waning sun and the glowing skins rendered their nudity somehow irrelevant.

They were arrayed now in nested circles around the fire, dancing in opposite directions. The circle stopped, creating pairs of individuals facing one another. A log shattered sending a spiral of burning embers into the deepening magenta sky.

The runabout approached an oversized garage door that opened, revealing a large parking area. The vehicle slid into a spot as my eyes focused past the pairs of men and women embracing on my windshield at a silhouette of a man walking toward me, arms folded, peering into the darkened windshield. Concord.

I blinked away the screen, my cheeks burning.

*   *   *

I climbed out of the runabout, glad that the windshield’s display was invisible from outside.

He smiled easily. “So. What are we doing?”

“I need to document damage for insurance purposes. The video feed from the unit is crap.”

He nodded.

I led him through a glass door that opened to my thumbprint, preceding him down a series of long, echoing concrete corridors lined with roll-up steel doors. Brilliant LED ceiling panels flicked on as we hit each intersection, illumining the corridor ahead, and only the corridor ahead; the building knew where my mother’s unit was, and it lit the way for us.

The cool air smelled of some pungent pine cleaning solution. Our footsteps echoed off the concrete and steel.

We found Mom’s unit beside a huge humming portable dryer packed with glowing red heating coils and whisper quiet fans.

I thumbed the lock, and the door opened, releasing a pulse of moist, musty air. The fifteen-by-fifteen-foot space was packed with furniture and towers of cardboard boxes that thankfully sat on wooden pallets. The floor was warm and just barely damp to the touch.

The furniture was some lightweight pine, stained a warm reddish brown and rubbed with butcher’s wax for a dull, pleasantly matte finish. My grandfather had built it; Mom had been unable to part with a single piece. The soft wood was easy to work, light, but not durable. He’d done contract work at the end of his life with expensive hard woods, but the stuff he’d built for his own family had been cheaper; practical. Beautiful in its way, but . . .

Not worth preserving.

I flashed the light from my mobile into a crack between the tightly packed tables, chairs, bookcases, cabinets, headboards. It looked okay at first glance. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then wondered why. If it had all been ruined, I’d have known what to do. Throw it out.

Now what?

“I think you lucked out,” Con said. He ran a hand along a nut-brown headboard. “This is nice. Shaker inspired, but not exactly . . . mortised joints . . . pegged . . .” His brow furrowed.

“Someone in your family made this?”

“My grandfather.”

“Ah,” he nodded, like he’d seen this kind of thing before.

My eyes caught on a series of deep scratches, light colored runnels in a bookcase, which I knew were cat scratches. The wood was so soft.

“It’s all beat up. Mom kept offering it to me and my brother, whenever we moved, but it never made sense to use it . . . I mean. I never had a relationship with this stuff.”

He nodded.

“It meant a lot to her. Her dad was handy. He made things. Fixed things.” Unlike my father, who ignored his physical surroundings. He had been a professor of media studies at MIT until his death twenty years ago. “I don’t remember my grandfather much. He was dead by the time I was five.”

I felt my eyes well up. My face was getting hot, which seemed unfair. “I have no idea what to do with all this crap.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Con said.

“I can’t throw it out while she’s . . . I can’t throw out . . . her life.” I could feel sweat beading on my forehead. I knew I was turning red.

“This isn’t her life,” Con said quietly.

Hot tears ran down my face stupidly. My nose started to run, too, clear watery snot. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. My nose produced more. I’m a really ugly crier.

“I know that!” I snapped.

Con said nothing. I knew he was nodding. I couldn’t look at him. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay. I get it. Do you want me to document this?”

I blinked back tears. “Now? With what?”

He tapped his temple.

Oh. Nomad. Implants. Optic inputs. Duh.

I helped him as we checked for water damage, not that he needed it, the stuff was so light; we moved the pieces on a dolly we’d passed near the entrance to well-lit open space in front of a bank of elevators. He walked slowly around each piece, his eyes taking in every detail.

“I can build models. Of all this.”

He meant computer models.

“What does that cost? How long does it take?”

He paused for a moment, then blinked at me. I checked his alert in my wearable and reviewed the fee schedule. It was surprisingly affordable.

“This is what Nomads do? With their old stuff?”

He nodded. “Sometimes. I could do the boxes, too. Capture all the paper, photos, negatives. Translate and archive any legacy data . . . there’s probably obsolete storage media in those boxes.”

“What would that cost?”

“I need to take a peek,” he said. “For the estimate.”

So we did that. We hauled each box out, razored open the packing tape with a tiny multitool Con produced from his backpack. He glanced at it all, riffling through file folders, tax records, photo albums, postcards, letters, magazines, books, calendars, legal documents, medical records, crates of shiny optical disks, thumb drives, clunky old mobile phones, laptops, ancient, heavy data slates.

He blinked me the estimate. The cost was equivalent to two months’ storage for both spaces.

“Do it all,” I said.

He handed me an old-fashioned cloth handkerchief from his hip bag. Did he carry snot around until he could wash and reuse it? I didn’t care. This one seemed clean. I blew my nose.

“Thanks,” I said. Unsure of what to do with a used handkerchief, I stuffed it in my pocket.

Con nodded. “You’re welcome.”

*   *   *

I gave Con access to both storage spaces, blinked partial payment to TaskMaster, and contacted my mom’s attorney to work through the suspension of life support paperwork, and the prep to emancipate the kids, in case I chose suspension. Wasting precious money on needless legal work because I couldn’t make a decision.

I am my mother’s daughter.

Then I boxed up Cleo and ferried her to the vet myself, eschewing a pick-up drone I could have afforded. She yowled loudly the entire way, super loud, each wail torn from some vast reservoir of fear and rage hidden away in her tiny kitty heart.

“Yes, Cleo, yes.” I patted the carrier on the passenger seat uselessly. “I’ve been taking care of you for seventeen years, but now, now I’m killing you. The jig is up. You’re on to me.”

Cleo stopped yowling.

“I’m kidding!” I said.

Cleo was uninsured. Without federal subsidy or mandate, pet health insurance was ludicrously expensive, like the human kind had been once upon a time, though I had childless friends who carried it on dogs, cats, and in one case, a twenty-foot-long reticulated python named Doc.

People without kids tell you how free they are, how easy their lives are, as they saddle themselves with exotic pets and other weird ridiculous responsibilities. People like to take care of small, helpless things. People like to be needed.

The vet was a tall young woman who suggested a battery of blood tests after a brief physical during which she pinned Cleo expertly to the stainless steel exam table while I tried and failed to calm her. The yowling painfully echoing from the tiny room’s white walls didn’t phase the vet in the slightest.

Did I want to test for things that were too expensive to fix? Yes. Of course I did. They wanted to keep her overnight. I blinked the office partial payment, accepted the woman’s comforting but vague blandishments, and left.

I got a blink from Con that he’d processed both storage spaces completely. I voiced him from the parking lot, setting down Cleo’s empty carrier. “That was fast. Um. How is that even possible?” I asked.

He sounded tired. “We have the equipment in the collective. It’s mostly robotic, the software is in the collective too, of course. I’ve done this a hundred times.”

I digested that. “Have you worked for two days straight without sleeping?”

Silence on the line. “Yes,” he said.

Maybe he didn’t need to sleep. A mod. But he sounded tired. “Stop it. Get some rest. Don’t hurt yourself,” I said. “This isn’t an emergency. I rent the spaces by the month; they’re paid up for three more weeks.”

“Okay,” he said. “Good to know. But I’m fine.”

I could have hung up on him then. I should have. But we’d just wrapped up a big project at GlobalGroup, my insipidly named employer. They snapped up the best and the brightest kids right out of MIT and Harvard and rented them out as consultants to the Transnationals. I didn’t consult, but integrated the systems that supported them—analyzed solutions, distilled specs, and wrote patch code.

“Can I buy you dinner?” I heard myself say.

Silence again. “If you want,” he said. “But it’s not necessary.”

“It is,” I said. “Necessary.”

He laughed. He had a good laugh, not fake, not forced, but not endless and tedious either. Michael had laughed too long. I’d gotten tired of his laugh after about a decade.

“You’re the boss,” he said.

We made an appointment to eat at a place in Harvard Square after work on Friday; he said he had other business to attend to the rest of the week. I approved his revised bill and blinked more funds to Taskmaster. The runabout ferried me home from the vet’s feeling strange. Excited.

I spent the rest of the week after work reading about Nomads, watching documentaries, reading their materials online, feeling unsettled and oddly exhausted. I’d always wanted to travel, but somehow, it had never been a priority; we’d visited the Amazonian rain forest, before the kids, and rented lake cabins in the summer in the Central New York lakes region since then. I hadn’t been out of the country in decades. The world I’d longed to see had been vanishing under the waves anyway; if not water, then under tides of human migration, making a mess of things. You couldn’t see Venice without scuba gear. And there were plenty of places westerners weren’t welcome. For obvious reasons.

Nomads were better tolerated. They’d emerged during the first decade following the climate runaway, the arctic methane pulse. Before Project Svalinn stabilized sea level rise.

In the first decades of the climate crisis wary, skilled displaced people had grown reluctant to sink money into real estate. Hacktivists created the collective, ironically using the stateless currency of the offshore libertarian banking havens. Nomads had roots in dozens of intentional communities—religious and secular, Israeli kibbutzniks, cohousing neo-hippies. Veterans of Woodstock, Starwood, Burning Man, former followers of Phish, and before them, the Grateful Dead, motorcycle clubs—all evolved and dissolved into tribes within the collective, taking advantage of the landless, stateless infrastructure pioneered by its hacktivist, libertarian core.

They owned virtually nothing beyond the tools of whatever trade they practiced, and even those were technically owned in common and shared when feasible. By convention, no Nomad remained in any contract longer than a calendar year without some special dispensation from the collective. Nomads had learned not to grow attached to places, to permanent structures, to cities. To stuff.

Nation states, eager to outsource their refugee crisis, granted the collective rights if Nomads aided in relief. If it helped their citizens wean themselves from places that needed to be abandoned. Flooded, burned, desertified regions of the planet birthed refugees by the tens of millions as the ongoing climate crisis unfolded. Nomads donated a month a year to ongoing relief efforts, which was called “the Work,” their gift to the world.

Theoretically anyone could test into the collective, with a fungible skill through a work exchange, or you could buy your way in while you developed a Nomadic skill. Of course, you had to donate everything you owned to the collective, first.

But the displaced were given preference. A well-off settled person might end up paying a hundred times what a flooded out subsistence farmer would be asked to contribute. There were around 150 million Nomads worldwide; roughly four million were former North Americans, about 5 percent of the old continental U.S. population.

The Fitness app my insurance company used to dole out wellness discounts interrupted my research to let me know I’d been lying around too long again, and suggested a brisk walk down to the river. I swore and took off my overlays and set them on the nightstand instead. Shamelessly, I napped.

Cutie, the fat one, clambered into bed with me and took her position near my feet, flopping against my calf and stretching out on her side. She made her little mewling cry, which I translated as “I would like to always be eating but barring that, you’re warm.”

“If I ran away with the circus, who would take care of you?”

Cutie rumbled against my leg. Saying it out loud, even as a joke, the thought of liquidating . . . everything, sent a shiver of delight edged with nausea up my spine.

Burning the empty nest.

My enterprise and analysis skills were portable. True, a lot of my value resided in my knowledge of legacy systems; I’d take a huge pay cut, joining the collective. It would be a step backward, career wise. Money wise. But I had enough equity in my 401k, even if the condo was now next to worthless, to buy into the collective, even if I didn’t test in . . .

“I’d never do it,” I said.

I flashed back on a time when the boys had been toddlers and they’d slept on the bed between us, with the cats tucked in here and there at the edges. The futon platform was only ten inches off the wall-to-wall carpet. When you fell out, it didn’t hurt.

They were so big now, my man-sized boy-men. Both towered over my five-foot-six frame. Miles had a pretty girlfriend; Sky, a prettier boyfriend. One of each, Michael had joked.

I missed those little boys, even though I remembered full well how exhausting that time of life had been. Michael had been very useful, then. I missed Mom, with similar reservations, even though technically she wasn’t quite dead.

Refusing to cry, I had a hot flash instead. Seriously. Why do we still have hot flashes?

*   *   *

My soon-to-be-ex voiced me to ask about Mom. He’d gotten along well with his mother-in-law, which was odd, as Mom could be a pain in the ass. When I told him what was going on with her, he cried. But Michael cried a lot. He’d cried when he told me about his new lady friend, too.

“Is there anything I can do?” he said.

“Not really,” I said. I left out the “but thanks” I would have added, had Michael been a friend. “I hired a Nomad to help me clear out her stuff. Big strapping young guy.”

“Huh,” said Michael.

We were both silent for a moment.

“Strapping,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Bow Chica, Wow Wow,” he sang softly.

“It’s not like that!” I snapped.

“I’m sure it isn’t. Um. Have you been an asshole to him yet?”

My ears got hot. “What are you talking about?”

“When you like someone, when you first meet them, you act like a total asshole. I guess to test them out? Make sure they’re worthy of your friendship? You might want to . . . not do that.”

I didn’t know what to say. I groaned.

“Oh,” he said. “You’ve already done it. Well. Some people find it endearing.”

I laughed. “Who?”

“I did,” Michael said. “And do.”

Suddenly I didn’t want to talk to him. Ever again. Which I knew was impractical. “Sure you do,” I said. “Why did you leave me again?”

He sighed. We’d been through this before. I’d never spoken of the sense of relief after we’d had The Conversation, but I’d admitted to myself that the breakup was more mutual than unilateral. I’d not owned up to this in so many words.

“You know those dumb movies your feed makes? Those retrospective things, for holidays?” Michael said.

“Of course.”

“I watched one on our anniversary last year. Wait. Here it is.” He blinked me a link. “Scan it, on fast-forward.”

“Why? What am I looking for?”

“Just do it. I’ll wait.”

The quality of the audio and video at the movie’s start was a bit grainy, with moments of blocky compression, but the resolution and quality improved quickly as I scanned through the years.

All the obligatory shots—wedding candids where we both looked like children, though we were in our thirties. Obsolete fashion, huge bulky wearables that made us look like TV cyborgs. Goofy grins. Perfect restaurant meals. Hiking in national forests. Sun blasted on a Caribbean beach, with big goofy drinks with umbrellas in them. We looked clueless. And happy.

Miles was born. There was the photo of Michael’s, where I’d been so out of it I hadn’t noticed one of my boobs hanging out from that first post-birth nursing. My hair was plastered to my forehead with sweat, but my smile was dazzling. Michael’s haggard face registered a single emotion: awe.

I fast-forwarded. We knelt on a hillside looking over the city, a blanket before us, newborn Sky screaming on the blanket in a lime green onesie, Miles touching his nose with his fingertip.

The AI had chosen shots where I was a primary focus, so the years sped by quickly, during the time we’d spent mostly staring at the kids. What the hell was this about?

Then I saw it. My smile. Fading. From a kind of genuine sharing, an openness, to a sort of grimace. Finally, it vanished altogether. I looked back at the camera the way you glare at someone cutting ahead of you in line. There was a little flurry, a montage, of my eyes rolling.

Then, for an instant, the smile was back, in full glory, at a work event a year ago.

Only I wasn’t looking at Michael.

“This is bullshit,” I said. “You did not divorce me for my own good.” I tried to remember what our anniversary movie had looked like from my POV, but drew a blank.

I hadn’t watched it. Which seemed unfair.

“Just give him that smile,” Michael said. “When you’re done being a jerk. That was part of my evil master plan. You smiling again.”

I felt weirdly ambushed and furious. An incoming call from the vet gave me an excuse to end the conversation abruptly.

The news about Cleo wasn’t good. She was seventeen, still a pretty good run for a shelter-rescue kitten. You could buy engineered cats and dogs now with longer life spans, though they were pricey. Michael and I had agreed that there was something wrong with that.

“Is she in pain?” I asked.

“Not much,” the vet said.

“What would you do?” I asked.

She answered quickly, as if she was asked this often. “Take her home for now,” she said. “You’ll know when to bring her back. She’s okay for the time being.”

“Weeks?” I said. “Months?”

“Days, most likely,” she said. “I’m very sorry.”

I thanked her and hung up, feeling numb. My eyes stung. I washed my face. I had no desire to keep my date with Con, our first social interaction. But I couldn’t figure out how to cancel it without sounding like an idiot.

My mother was dying, but the cat’s imminent demise was what was flooring me. I was in denial about Mom. But not the cat. Maybe seeing Con would be a good idea. Maybe he’d take my mind off . . . everything.

*   *   *

Peaceable Kingdom served fabricated meat in an eclectic array of fusion cuisines, Thai-Tamil, Pan Arabic, Neo-Orbital, French Vietnamese. Nothing was authentic; everything was delicious.

Con met me next to the animatronic tableau in front of the restaurant on Church Street; the proverbial lion laying down with a half dozen cute little lambs, whose heads oriented toward yours, their eyes glistening as they blinked up at you. The lion yawned, revealing huge, gleaming incisors. The place was super touristy. Michael had hated it.

Con grinned, seeming remarkably chipper for someone who didn’t sleep. The sleeplessness Mod was rare, associated with seriously reduced life spans, and like most mods, it was forbidden in nearly all health insurance networks.

We shook hands. His grip, warm, strong, made my knees tremble. For real. A tiny bit.

We had to wait at the bar a few minutes to be seated; the place was at capacity, filled with middle-aged people from all over the world dropping their kids off at one of the Commonwealth’s dozen major universities. Seared meat, aromatic vegetables, pungent chilies and garlic saturated the air-conditioned coolness. I’d been hot-flash-free all day, oddly.

While we waited for the server to escort us to our table, Con stood so close I could feel the heat coming off his body. He took everything in placidly, a perpetual Buddha smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He’d nicked his Adam’s apple shaving, and somehow, this bit of imperfection was comforting. I resisted the urge to touch the tiny reddened scratch.

I took a half step back from him, and his eyes fixed on mine.

“Sorry,” he said, also taking a step back. “I . . .”

He mouthed a soundless apology.

“Personal space!” he said. “I forgot for a second. Where I was.”

How could he forget that? I wondered again about what the brain tumor had cost him.

I’d spent an hour getting ready to see him. Put on make-up and took it off, except for my tattooed-on eyeliner, souvenir of a odd moment in my twenties I have yet to regret. I’d settled for a silvery sleeveless top and gray slacks with a low heel. I’d let my hair down and brushed it till it fell in shiny waves to my shoulders. I’d had a stem-cell root treatment that eliminated the threads of gray, one of those procedures everyone did, so while my hair was thinner than it once was, it retained its natural, dirty blonde goodness.

At home in the mirror getting ready, the words that came to mind were that detestable acronym ending with the f-word . . . or a large predatory feline. Suddenly I regretted my eyeliner.

“Bow Chicka, Wow Wow,” I murmured.

Con glanced back at me, eyebrows elevating.

“Nothing,” I said, clarifying. “I didn’t say anything.”

He nodded.

Perhaps he had super Nomad hearing? I decided to believe he hadn’t heard me, or didn’t get the reference, so I didn’t have to strangle myself to death in the restroom.

The waitress was petite, beautiful, and androgynous in a way that made my exertions feel like a waste of time; she led us to our table near the back, past the huge circular grilling station. Your blinked order activated clawed arms that plucked marinated meats and prepped vegetables from bins near the vast circular grill’s central well and laid them sizzling on the hot steel that was ridged into wedges to contain juices and marinades; powerful ventilation whisked away most of the out-gassing, but a hint of chili in the air made my eyes briefly blur and tear up. The vat-grown meat could be eaten raw—it was pathogen free—but nobody did that, thank God.

Flashing robot arms tended the cooking meat and vegetables, added spices and sauces, worried at the little crusted-on caramelized bits as they deglazed the surface with plumes of roaring flame. It was fun to watch; the grill was like a huge steampunk spider. They’d resisted the urge to anthropomorphize the experience, which I appreciated.

I blinked up a Malaysian curried chicken thing with tiny baby broccoli and cauliflower (the entire heads were the size of walnuts, covered in tiny fractal swirls) and added a scoop of zero-calorie brown rice.

For a second, I could see a look of . . . shock? Disgust? on Con’s face, before he blinked up a bowl of tofu and sweated Asian greens flecked with slivers of caramelized garlic.

We collected our warm plates and took our seats at a crappy table near the rest rooms. My knee collided with his under the table.

We both said sorry in unison.

“Tell me where you are,” he said. “With your mother.”

I filled him in on the details; I’d be able to terminate life support when my lawyer finished the paperwork and the Eldercare ombudsman signed off on the request, probably in a day or two. If that was what I was doing. Ditto on the suspension, if I went that direction.

I told him about my kids, how I didn’t think they needed to be there, for either option. They’d spent a lot of time with their grandmother, growing up a short subway hop away from her condo. They didn’t need to remember her like this.

Con soaked it in, nodding, looking thoughtful.

The waitress brought us the pitcher of beer I’d ordered, which was larger than I’d recalled them being. The pale ale was delicious, brewed on-site, the glasses frosted with condensation.

I told Con about Cleo, how I was worried about her, too. I told him how tired I was of my job, helping consultants help big companies get away with doing questionable things. Then I talked about Michael. The waitress brought a second pitcher.

I couldn’t stop myself. I’d spent my dating life, the first time around, mostly listening. Listening to men. Their hopes, their dreams, their epic struggles; their passions, their hobbies, their professional aspirations. Being careful not to interrupt, distract, or minimize. I never wanted to do that again. By the time I realized I was drunk, I had picked up an unholy head of steam.

“Now you,” I said. “Tell me about yourself, Nomad.”

His smile seemed genuine. He’d listened and nodded and paid attention better than any therapist I’d paid two hundred an hour.

“Not much to tell that wasn’t in my bio.”

I raised my eyebrows at him. Sure, I was dressed for a job interview, but I’d expected a little more . . . candor. Authenticity, from the Zen fool traveler dude.

My look got through to him. He laughed. “Okay. Personal stuff. Fair is fair.” He sipped his beer. “Doing the work in Viet Nam, there was an accident. A reactor breach. We were exposed. I survived. Raine didn’t.”

He radiated calm. Acceptance. The smile was gone but he wasn’t registering any pain in his facial expression. I couldn’t understand it. Grown ups, I guess, processed difficult things? Grown ups got on with their lives.

I wanted to touch his hand on the table between us, slip mine into it. Instead, I asked, “What is your current situation?”

“My situation?”

I nodded, refusing to elaborate. He knew what I meant. Oh God. He had to know what I meant?

“I’m single now,” he said, looking like there was more to be said. “And. Well. Single I guess sums it up.”

I waited for him to tell me more, and when he said nothing, I gradually began to feel like a idiot. My head throbbed. A tiny bit of blood-warm, acidic beer backed up in my mouth. I was pathetic. My face grew hot, not from a flash; it was just ordinary embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re a Nomad,” I said. “Plenty of fish in the sea.” The room was now rotating, I noticed. Not fast enough to be nauseating, yet, but still, the movement felt unpleasant before I remembered I was drunk. I hadn’t been this drunk in many years. Or maybe ever. Had I just said “plenty of fish in the sea”?

Con’s expression had gone flat. He nodded and cleared his throat.

“I wanted your permission to use your data to build a memory palace.” He blinked me a document that showed up in my overlays. The signature required icon blinked red.

“How much would that cost?” I asked.

He shook his head, a flash of annoyance creasing his brow. “No charge,” he said. “It’s a thing I like to do, sometimes.”

Some Nomad thing? I closed my eyes. The room spun faster. “Sure. Sounds great,” I said. I blinked the signature button on the document in my overlay without even opening it and blinked it back to him.

That’s when I excused myself and wobbled off on heels that seemed suddenly much higher than they’d been an hour earlier. In the ladies’ room, I threw up in a ladylike fashion. I’m pretty good at vomiting. I got nothing on my shoes. Dating, as it turned out, hadn’t really changed at all in the last twenty years.

 

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Copyright © 2016. What We Hold Onto by Jay O'Connell

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