by Will McIntosh
I held Mimi’s hand as a nurse wearing a sari pushed the IV needle through the loose, spotted skin at the crook of her elbow.
“I’m scared. I want to go home.”
The nurse patted Mimi’s shoulder. She didn’t understand the words, but Mimi’s tone told her everything.
“If you want to call it off, we can.” I wanted to tell her this was the only way—that if we went home now there’d be nothing to look forward to but a long, slow descent into hell. But I couldn’t. Considering what they were about to do, it had to be her decision. I clasped her hand. “But you have to be sure. A year from now it’ll be too late.”
Mimi squeezed her eyes shut; tears rolled out of the corners. “Tell me what to do. Is this the right thing? I don’t know anymore. I’m just so scared.”
“I know you are. Anyone would be.” Suddenly I was doubting this whole plan myself. When they wheeled her into surgery, it would be the last time I’d ever see her. I’d get to talk to her again, and she’d be in a place where Alzheimer’s could never reach her, but I would never see her again. That was sinking in as I sat there squeezing her hand.
The body has to go, because they’re not copies.
We’re not duplicating her brain, Dr. Prakash had said. We’re extracting Miriam’s essence—the parts that make Miriam who she is—and installing it into a new, generic brain of sorts.
It’s still you. That’s the point—it’s still you.
“I just don’t want to lose you,” I said.
Mimi broke into sobs. We’d cried so much in the past seven months; more than in the fifty years before that combined. We’d been blessed, truly blessed, and I didn’t want it to end. Maybe that’s greedy. Maybe I should have been grateful for a good life with Mimi and accepted that the last few years of it were going to be hell.
“Okay.” Mimi nodded bravely. “I want to do this.”
I kissed her on the cheek, trying to hide my own doubts.
I caught a final glimpse of her bare foot jutting out from under the sheet as they wheeled her down the white hallway. Then she disappeared around the corner.
As I sat in the waiting room I tried to get used to the idea that Mimi’s body was gone now. I would never exchange a glance with her again, never feel her weight on the other side of the bed.
It wasn’t about sex. That’s less of a big deal at our age. No matter how many articles they publish in AARP Magazine about great senior sex, the urge just isn’t there the way it was when we were twenty. Back then we had great sex, I’m happy to say.
I checked my watch. I had at least sixteen hours before Mimi would be ready to go home. The plan was for me to get some sleep, but now that this was actually happening I wasn’t sure I could sleep.
So I sat, and I dreamed about the past. You do that a lot when you get old. More than I would have guessed, when I was younger.
Neither of us remembers the first time we met. It was probably in church youth group, when Mimi was thirteen and I was sixteen, but it’s hard to say, because we grew up in the same Upper Manhattan neighborhood and lived three blocks from each other our entire young lives.
We both remember when we became boyfriend and girlfriend, though. We were hanging around in front of Dunkin Donuts, down on Diechman Street, which was the main drag in our neighborhood, and Bobby Barnett turned and asked Mimi if she wanted to go to the movies with him. And out of the blue, I blurted out that Mimi was my girlfriend. She looked at me, startled, but she didn’t disagree.
So I took her to the movie. It was Indiana Jones, by the way. Mimi insists it was Arthur, but we saw that later.
* * *
The driver didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Hindi, or Tamil, or any of the other dozen languages people around here spoke, so we stood leaning against the back of the van, our arms folded, and watched the service door in silence.
This felt sleazier than I’d imagined. We were waiting outside a beat-up green door, waving away flies, the smell of trash wafting from a dumpster not ten feet away. It reminded me of my days as a private at Fort Drum. I’d spent a decent amount of time standing around latrines swatting flies back in those days.
Behind us traffic rumbled by on a busy street, people walking everywhere. Across the street was a store covered with signs and advertisements, half a dozen bikes and motorcycles parked on the sidewalk outside.
The green door swung open. A thin guy in white appeared carrying a big wooden crate. Another older guy followed behind him carrying an identical crate. The strength went out of my legs; I had to lean heavily on the van. My Mimi. That was my Mimi.
The driver motioned for me to move away from the van so he could open the back. The other men loaded the crates into the van, side by side.
The older man took the lids off both crates, and pulled out one of the chess pieces. The white queen. It was beautifully carved, much more ornate and colorful than I’d pictured, about eight inches tall.
“Thirty-two. Sixteen in each crate.” He touched each of the crates in turn. “Good?”
Dr. Prakash had taken great pleasure in explaining the logic behind using chess pieces. If you tried to take thirty-two vases or cameras through customs on a tourist visa, it raised suspicion. A chess set is supposed to have thirty-two pieces. You needed something unique, fragile, and valuable enough to justify special handling, so you commissioned a hand-carved and painted chess set and hid the neural material inside, in cylinders that kept it at sub-zero temperature to preserve it. Brilliant. The scanners in the U.S. could detect a whole human mind if you tried to smuggle it through, but not a mind split into thirty-two segments.
The man put a hand on my shoulder. “Good journey to you, sir.”
I thanked him. I had no idea the journey I was facing.
* * *
When the plane touched down at JFK, I literally jogged to the baggage claim area to present my claim check in the special handling office. The young woman behind the desk took the receipt and disappeared into the back. She returned a moment later with a beat up red suitcase.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your package.” She compared my claim check to the suitcase and nodded.
“No, no, no. It’s two crates. A chess set.”
As my heart pounded, the woman showed me that the tag on the suitcase matched my claim check, number for number. “You said two crates? There’s only one number on this. It can’t be for two items.
“I must have been given the wrong ticket. There are two crates back there.” I described them, how big they were, what was in them. She went into the back and returned four or five long minutes later, shaking her head. “They’re not there.”
I felt like a grenade had just exploded in my chest.
“Sir?” The woman must have come around the desk; her hands were on my shoulders, easing me into a chair. “I need some help here, please,” she shouted out the door.
I shouldn’t have let her out of my sight. I should have insisted the driver and the porter I’d hired outside the airport come with me to the bathroom. When the porter said he’d take care of everything, that I should sit and rest and he’d meet me in the waiting area, I was so grateful to have someone who spoke English and could navigate the chaos, the foreign language, the foreign customs and procedures. I figured Mimi was safer in his hands than mine. Dr. Prakash had walked me through all of the paperwork ahead of time. It was all set.
Five minutes after I came out of the bathroom the porter pressed receipts and a claim check into my hand. I tipped him forty dollars, the driver a hundred, and choked up as I thanked them. I hope they felt like shit taking that money, I really do.
I’m a retired colonel in the United States Army. I spent my life learning discipline and attention to detail. And then I screwed up the most important detail in the most important mission of my life.
* * *
When I spotted Denise Sculary rushing through the electric doors into the baggage claim area, I broke down. I am not a crier. As far as I can remember I hadn’t cried since I was nine, but I broke down. The airport employees must have thought I was a lunatic, crying over a lost chess set.
Neither Denise nor I are huggers, but she wrapped her arms around me and said, “We’ll figure it out, Colonel. Don’t panic. We’ll figure it out.”
Denise spoke to the supervisor on duty in Special Handling, gave him one of her cards. Once upon a time Denise was a military attorney who worked for the division I supervised. For the past six years we’d been friends who met for lunch and bullshit about politics and the New York Yankees.
* * *
“Shouldn’t I report the crates as stolen?” I asked as we drove home.
“How long will the canisters keep Mimi’s material viable?” Denise asked.
“Oh, God. I don’t know.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the canisters might eventually stop cooling. I called Dr. Prakash and told her what had happened. She was beyond sympathetic—she was distraught, as if Mimi was a relative of hers instead of a patient. I asked her about the canisters.
“They’re powered by standard aluminum graphite batteries. I’ll double-check, but I’m sure they last three months or more.”
“Three months,” I reported to Denise when I disconnected.
“Then absolutely not. Do not report those crates stolen.” Denise delivered the advice in her lawyer tone, which was a decibel lower, with a much slower cadence, than her personal speaking voice.
“If you tell the FBI what’s really in them, you’ll be prosecuted for breaking the Artificial Persons Immigration Act, and Mimi will be confiscated and incinerated. If you claim they’re just valuable artworks and they’re recovered, they’ll be held as evidence in a felony theft case for a year or more.”
“Then what do I do?”
Denise patted my arm. “We have to find her, and buy her back.”
* * *
My neck was aching from looking at the computer screen for so long. Fifteen years ago I had a spinal fusion procedure on the discs in my neck. I’d also grown soft after seven years of retirement, much of it spent in my recliner watching ball games and old movies.
Things had cruised along so smoothly for so long that I’d just about forgotten what it felt like to hurt. I lost friends, but the core—my family—had been intact and more or less healthy for fifty-five years. I was stunned by how much it hurt to hurt. I’d forgotten what heartache, what real pain, was like.
For the life of me I don’t understand how the driver and the porter, who as far as I know didn’t know each other, had agreed to and executed a crime so quickly. Maybe they’d set it up ahead of time. I’m sure they thought they were stealing chess pieces; they couldn’t have known Mimi was inside.
The driver had disappeared, and no one knew who the porter was. He’d told me his name was Ruplu, but in a city of eight million, that wasn’t much help, even if it was his real name.
Without the thieves, we were forced to hunt for the chess pieces themselves. Seva Vasa, the artist who’d carved them, was prominent in India, and each of the thirty-two pieces was signed and dated, so we had that going for us in trying to retrieve them.
A dozen or more people were helping me. My son Alvy had taken a leave of absence from his job. Denise was working day and night. Hank Bowie had retired from the NYC police force, but he had a friend on the force who was quietly monitoring crime databases.
If I hadn’t spent all of our savings, just about wiped out the 401K, and put a reverse-mortgage on the house to pay for Mimi’s consciousness transfer (as they call it), I could have paid some tech whiz to help me. The friend I really needed—Frank Carty—had died seven years ago. Frank was a computer whiz back when it was all hard drives and RAM, and he’d kept right up with it when the conversion to neurotech happened. But Frank was gone, so I tried to learn everything I needed to learn to be my own Frank.
I’m not a modern guy. I try not to fall too far behind the times, but I have no interest in plugging into the latest neurotech gadget, and I’m baffled by people who stand in line for hours just to be the first to get this or that new plug-in. And not just eighteen-year-olds—people my age, sixty-five, seventy-year-olds, stand in these lines that wrap around the block, their knees and hips aching. It’s insanity. But when it stops being about keeping up, when you’re motivated by survival, you learn in a hurry.
My phone rang, sending a jolt of adrenaline through me. I answered halfway through the first ring.
“I think we may have something, Colonel.” It was Denise. “I hired an Indian man in the U.S. to troll websites in Hindi, and he found some of the pieces listed in an auction.”
I jumped to my feet. “I have to get to India. When is the auction?”
“In three days. Only it’s not in India—it’s in Helsinki.”
“I don’t care if it’s on Mars.” Something she’d said suddenly registered. “Some of the pieces?”
“Seven. Maybe we can trace back from there and find the rest.”
They’d split up the set? I steadied myself on the kitchen table, feeling like I was going to be sick. How could they split it up? It was a set. It was my wife.
* * *
“I’m coming, Mimi,” I said under my breath as I climbed the steps of the escalator, too impatient to wait for it to carry me to the preview room. I’d said it aloud fifty times while my son drove me to the airport, thought it through the whole endless flight to Finland.
The preview room wasn’t as opulent as the lobby and hallways of Hagelstam Art Auction. A pudgy guy in a dark suit stood at an empty table, his hands behind his back. I wanted to grab him by the throat, even though none of this was his fault.
Instead, I checked the catalog I’d been clutching in my sweaty hand. “Items 451 through 458.”
He nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
My heart was beating slow and hard. The auction house probably wasn’t even aware the pieces were stolen (how could they be?), but they’d still been stolen from me, and it made me furious.
I probably should have been focusing my rage on the real villain—the U.S. government, with their anti-artificial persons laws—but I had more than enough rage to spread around. All of this was happening because it was illegal to take advantage of life-saving technology in the country I’d served and protected for forty-two years. Why was it illegal? That depends on who you asked. The Catholic Church said consciousness relocation was an abomination, that it trapped your soul, kept it from floating off to heaven the way it’s supposed to. The official government line was the procedure hadn’t been dragged through all the hoops to show it’s safe yet.
Safe? The way having your brain slowly deteriorate until you’re a vegetable lying in a hospital bed crapping your pants is safe? That kind of safe, you mean? Give me a break.
A lot of terminally ill people in the United States are undergoing the procedure if they can afford it. I hear people say they’d never do it, not in a million years. Usually their lip is curled when they say it. But I’ll tell you, the thought of dying, or someone you love dying, will change your mind in a hurry.
Pudgy man returned with seven chess pieces on a bronze tray. I hadn’t really looked at the one piece I’d been shown at the trunk of that God damned thief’s truck. They were heavy, made of polished marble according to the catalog, and they were beautiful. Breathtaking. I’m not an art aficionado, but even I could see these were incredible.
The white queen was an Indian queen dressed in long, flowing robes. It looked as if the robes were being blown in a breeze, along with the queen’s hair. What was truly remarkable, though, was how clear and lifelike her expression was. She looked pissed, determined.
All of the pieces had lifelike faces. The black bishop looked like he’d just heard a dirty joke. The black rook looked like he was having trouble staying on his horse.
I turned the white queen over. There was no seam, no sign of patching to the base, nothing to make someone suspect there was anything inside.
But there was. A part of my wife’s mind was inside.
“Thank you.” I picked up my paddle and headed for my seat.
* * *
When item 451 came out, I raised my paddle before the auctioneer even asked for an opening bid, and I held it there after the hammer came down at seven hundred dollars, so I wouldn’t have to raise it again for item 452. I held that paddle in the air until item 458 hammered for nine-fifty, then turned and strode off to get twenty-two percent of my wife back.
* * *
I sat with the white queen in my lap, a hammer and chisel on the kitchen table in front of me. Dr. Prakash had assured me there was no way I could damage the canister inside. That wasn’t what I was afraid of, though; that wasn’t what had my hands shaking.
The sooner the neural material is married to the synthetic brain, the better. That’s what Dr. Prakash had said. Even if I didn’t have it all. Get it in there.
Only Dr. Prakash wasn’t sure what would happen. What does twenty-two percent of a person act like? Would Mimi remember me? Would it be hell for her, psychological torture? Dr. Prakash didn’t know, and I didn’t want to find out. But I had to; the more of Mimi that was thawed and nourished, the better her chances of being herself when I recovered the rest of the pieces. And every moment I spent sitting with the queen in my lap was time I wasn’t hunting down the other pieces. Denise was engaging Hagelstam Art Auction, calmly threatening to rain hell down on them if they didn’t provide us with the seller’s contact information. Denise was a wrecking ball when she needed to be. I was fortunate to have her on my side.
I set the white queen on the table and picked up the hammer and chisel. It took a few good blows before a chunk of the queen’s torso cracked off and fell to the linoleum floor, exposing the smooth silver of the canister. I lopped the queen’s head off at the shoulders, then her legs, before chipping away enough marble that the canister popped free.
The black bishop was next.
When Dr. Prakash first told me I’d take the chess pieces home and install Mimi’s mind into a synthetic brain, I pictured sticking my hands into a vat with a brain floating in it, but of course that’s not what she had in mind. I’m grateful the people who came up with neurotech decided to house it inside plastic and make it look like hard tech from the outside. The thought of strips of synthetic brain tissue behind glass everywhere you go, blood vessels snaking up the walls—that would be disgusting beyond words.
The brain was inside a hard outer case about the size of a bowling ball that had a camera, speaker, connections for feeding and powering the climate control. Once I had the canisters I was supposed to set them one at a time into a compartment in a shoebox-sized custom-made piece of equipment that the guy who delivered the setup had attached to the brain box. I’m sure it wasn’t called a brain box, but that’s how I thought of it.
I set the first canister in the compartment and closed the door. A blue light went on, and stayed on while the equipment made a whirring sound, like a miniature vacuum cleaner.
The light turned yellow and the door opened. I fed the next canister in as quickly as possible. It would take a couple of minutes for the brain to link up the new neurons, but somehow it seemed like the more of Mimi that was in there at once, the better.
* * *
I jumped to my feet and rushed to the box. I’d been dozing. I studied the speaker, wondering if I’d dreamed the sound.
I cleared my throat. “Mimi? Are you there?”
“I don’t want to do this. I’m scared.”
“I’m here. Don’t be scared, I’m right here.” I leaned in toward the camera. “Can you see me?”
She didn’t answer.
I went into the cabinet over the stove and pulled down one of the bottles of Jack Daniels Joe Collorafi gives me each year for Christmas. I don’t drink much, but I don’t have the heart to tell Joe that, so the bottles pile up. I poured myself a double-shot and downed it in two swallows, willing the booze to take the edge off what I was feeling.
She was scared. That was all she’d said. Was she lost in there? I pictured her stumbling through dark tunnels, lost and terrified.
“Is there a substitute for this? It’s torn. I’m scared.”
“Mimi? Zipper?” Sometimes I called her zipper, because she zips around, always moving, keeping busy.
“Always chocolate. Of course.”
I leaned closer to her. “What? I don’t understand.” Of course I didn’t. Most of her was missing.
“Somebody help me. I’m scared.”
I pressed my forehead against the camera. “I’m here. I’m here.” My stomach was roiling, my head pounding. I couldn’t stand this. Was she suffering? Was she aware of what was happening?
I returned to my computer. The only way out was forward. I had to find the other twenty-five pieces.
* * *
I passed a mural someone had painted on the wall, of Jesus, Buddha, and what I assumed were Hindu gods dressed in colorful outfits wearing crowns and necklaces.
Mimi and I had traveled pretty extensively, but we’d never been to India before the procedure. We’d been to China, on a cruise down the Yangtze River. Europe, Costa Rica, Cuba. We’d been hoping to do more after her procedure, although we’d have to limit it to within the United States because of the laws against Mimi’s transformation.
I found the address I was looking for, and stopped in front of a nondescript apartment. Steps led to a narrow sheltered landing, hanging plants swinging, potting soil and a rake leaning against one wall.
The door rippled as I knocked, as if there was water flowing down it. I was jet-lagged beyond belief. In my brain it was three a.m., yet the sun was out and I was wandering back streets in Madras, India.
The man who answered the door wearing shorts and sandals was fiftyish, with thick, curly hair. He raised salt and pepper eyebrows. “Yes?”
“Mr. Chakrabarti? Colonel Walter Murphy.” I stuck out my hand. I’d learned long ago that people tended to give knee-jerk respect when I mentioned my military rank, and right now I needed this man’s respect and compliance. Mr. Chakrabarti shook, his eyebrows still raised in an unspoken question: Who the hell are you?
This being my third foray to retrieve a chess piece, I had developed a flow chart strategy.
“I want to talk to you about the chess piece. You posted a photo of it on Pinterest.”
“My wife did, yes.” He shifted his weight, folded his arms across his chest.
“I have a special interest in these pieces.” I pulled a stack of photos from my shirt pocket and showed them to him, flipping through the images of the pieces I’d recovered as I spoke. “I have a sentimental attachment to this set. I’d like to buy your piece.”
Mr. Chakrabarti frowned. “I’m not interested in selling.”
“Can I ask how much you paid?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not your concern.”
I spread my hands. “I’m only asking because I want to offer you triple what you paid.”
The offer seemed to antagonize Mr. Chakrabarti rather than interest him. “Where did you come from? Do you live in Madras?”
“I just arrived from the United States.”
“You came all this way to offer to buy my Vasa sculpture?” He seemed somewhere between surprised and horrified by the idea. When I nodded, he asked, “Why didn’t you just phone? I could have saved you a trip and told you I’m not interested.”
So much for offering to buy the piece. That led to tactic B on my flow chart: tell the truth.
“This is too important to me to rely on a phone call.” I raised my hand as he tried to interrupt. “Please. Let me finish. The truth of the matter is, I came to India to try to save my wife from dying of Alzheimer’s disease. We paid a neurosurgeon to perform consciousness transfer. We tried to smuggle her back to the U.S. hidden in chess pieces, so customs couldn’t detect her, only someone stole the chess pieces.”
Mr. Chakrabarti went to close his door. “You’ve lost your mind.”
I lunged, shoved my foot in to wedge the door open. “I’m willing to pay more than a fair price, but I’m telling you right now, that chess piece was stolen from me, and I’m going to get it back, or die trying.” This was the first time I’d been forced to move to C on the flow chart. C was threaten and intimidate.
Mr. Chakrabarti studied my loafer, frowning, then held up a finger. “I will make you a deal. If you agree to get your foot out of my door and wait here, I will bring the piece. If you can show me the hidden compartment where your wife is hiding, you can have the piece for nothing.”
“Agreed.” I took my foot out of the door, smoothed my wrinkled dress shirt, and waited. The piece was as good as mine.
* * *
I had developed a ritual when I added a new piece (or in this case, three new pieces) to Mimi. First, I went to the refrigerator and updated my running tally of what percentage of Mimi was now present, crossing out the old percentage and writing the new one below it. We were jumping all the way from twenty-eight percent to thirty-seven point five this time. Then I poured myself a double Jack Daniels and put on Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell, which was still Mimi’s favorite album.
Whatever music you loved at sixteen would always and forever be the music you love most. Someone had told me that, and it was true for Mimi, although she’d been more like thirteen when she discovered Bat Out of Hell.
I installed the new pieces.
While I waited to see what the additions would do, I drank my Jack.
It isn’t immortality. Even neural traces eventually wear out. Over time the person’s harvested neural material fades, and nothing is left but an empty synthetic brain. Mimi didn’t want to be immortal, though; we just wanted to have more time. She had it in her will that the feeding tube to the synthetic brain was to be disconnected when I died, but I was hoping to talk her out of that. Why not stick around and keep our kids company for a few decades?
Bat Out of Hell ended, and I put on Mimi’s favorite TV show, a thirty-year-old show no one remembers called Persons of Interest. We had every episode in remastered full-surround, where sometimes you had to turn in your chair to watch the characters walk around just outside the edges of your living room. I may not be a modern guy for the most part, but I’m old, and old people watch a lot of TV, so we had the latest.
I was in a pretty good mood, considering, as I watched the show, which I’d pretended to love for the past twenty-five years because it was Mimi’s favorite. Privately I was only so-so on it.
“Reese,” Mimi said.
I stood. “What’s that, Mimi?”
Reese? I didn’t understand. Most of the things she said I didn’t understand. They were like echoes, snatches from some conversation that happened once upon a time.
Out beyond the living room wall, the guy with the glasses and the limp said, “Where are you, Mr. Reese?”
Laughing and crying at the same time, I rushed over to Mimi on her table. “That’s right. Reese! His name is Reese. That’s so good, Mimi.” It was the first time she’d reacted to something. She’d never answered a question I asked, or seemed to recognize a song I played. Of course, it could have been a coincidence.
I turned up the volume on Persons of Interest and waited.
“Finch, are you there?” Mr. Reese, the CIA hero guy, said as he ran down Fifth Avenue.
“Finch, are you there?” Mimi repeated. So she could definitely hear it.
“Mimi, do you recognize me?” I waved in front of her camera. I didn’t know if she could see me, but now I knew she could hear me. “It’s me. It’s Walt.”
“Well, you need to move fast,” Reese was saying on Persons of Interest.
“Move fast,” Mimi echoed. And then she screamed. It was a computer voice, part Mimi and part not, and so loud it made the speaker crackle with static. I wanted to comfort her. I would have done anything to hold her hand. Anything.
“Some of you got separated,” I said, talking slowly, carefully. “I’m going to get it, though. I’m going to help you, Zipper. I promise, I’ll get you fixed up.”
* * *
“Merry Christmas,” Mimi said when we finished singing Jingle Bells, probably the only song the whole family, including the grandkids, knew.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” Alvy said as excited exclamations rang out.
“Dad?” Mimi said.
“No, Mom. It’s Alvy.”
Carrie’s little girl Bev dropped to her hands and knees and looked under the table holding Mimi. “Where is Grandma?”
“She’s in the box,” Carrie said. “I told you.”
“No she isn’t,” Bev shouted. “She can’t fit in there.”
Everyone laughed except Carrie, who covered her mouth and turned pinkish. I put my arm around her. “It’s okay,” I whispered in her ear. “She doesn’t understand what anyone is saying.”
“Sometimes she does, a little.”
I shrugged. Once in a while it seemed like Mimi was picking up pieces of what people said to her, but rarely. I gave Carrie a little squeeze and wandered into the family room, where the tree lights flashed and flickered, and the smell of pine was like a knife through my heart.
Everywhere I turned, every decoration, sparked a memory. Christmas memories washed over me like boiling water. The year I tried to reorganize all the bulbs so each section of the tree was a uniform color. The year Alvy knocked the tree over. Even memories of the year everyone in the family had the stomach virus seemed so precious, so wonderful and magical and painful to think about.
I set my hand on the massive package that had arrived three days earlier, from Dr. Prakash. She’d called to tell me to watch for it, warning me that it was just a Christmas gift meant to cheer me, nothing helpful to Mimi. I opened the card that was attached.
It wasn’t from Dr. Prakash; it was from Seva Vasa, the sculptor.
* * *
You said it was a shame to break them, but stone can be replaced. I pray you are successful in your quest to find the irreplaceable.
* * *
I opened the package, knowing what was inside. A complete chess set. I pulled the white queen free and set it on the mantle over the fireplace. When I had the time and energy I’d unpack the rest and line them up with the queen.
“How you doing?” Alvy was standing in the doorway, the colored lights on the tree reflecting in his glasses.
I pointed at the queen on the mantle. “The sculptor sent me a complete set. I talked with her early on to see if she could help us recover pieces, and I complimented her work. I said it was such a shame to have to break them.”
Alvy went to the crate, took out a rook. “What a lovely gift.”
“Isn’t it? She never even met Mimi and she spent, what, probably weeks carving these?”
“How is the search going?”
I shrugged. “All the leads have dried up. We’ve got want ads all over the Internet, we’ve sent word to every big art gallery and auction house in the world.” In the living room, Mimi said something, then everyone talked at once, excited by whatever Mimi had managed to verbalize. “We’ve got three weeks before the batteries start running down. How are we going to find twelve more?”
Alvy knelt by the tree, swung the lever on the train transformer. The black Lionel engine clattered around the track. “We find as many as we can. It doesn’t have to be all twelve.”
“Do you hear her in there?” I pointed into the living room. “She’s more confused than if she did have Alzheimer’s. We can’t let her stay like that. It’s torture.”
Alvy dropped to one knee before pushing himself to his feet, in deference to his bad back. “So is Alzheimer’s, Dad. You did your best for her. Sometimes that’s all we can do.”
“I left her with a couple of strangers to go take a piss. That’s not my best. That’s my worst.”
“If you’d gone to get a drink at the bar, then you should feel like crap. You had to go to the bathroom.” He laughed dryly. “The bathroom. Everyone understands what it’s like to have to go to the bathroom. Mom would understand. Hell, she had to go every twenty minutes. Remember Disney World?”
I smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“They had to stop the Small World ride halfway through and let her off.”
“She had a bladder the size of a gumball.”
I burst out laughing, then struggled mightily to keep it from turning into crying.
* * *
I set the canister down on Mimi’s table as Bat Out of Hell played. This single lousy piece didn’t seem like a reason to celebrate, but I took a sip of my Jack Daniels anyway. Two days. Nine pieces still missing. Where were they? They had to be out there somewhere. I’d shelled out seventeen thousand dollars, borrowed from Denise and various friends I hadn’t already hit up for cash, to hire a woman who was supposed to be a high-tech cyber-detective extraordinaire. She’d run an image-recognition search that combed through every single one of the billions of photos on the Internet, looking for shapes that matched the missing pieces anywhere in the photos, even on a shelf way in the background. She’d found two that way.
I updated the tally. Seventy-two percent. Twenty-eight percent of Mimi was still MIA.
“Here’s a little more, Mimi. We’re getting closer.”
The door closed, the machine made its vacuum cleaner sound.
“Merry Christmas.” Mimi had been saying that a lot in the weeks since Christmas.
It was hard to tell exactly what was missing just by talking to her. I could ask Dr. Prakash to figure out how much of what was missing was frontal lobe, how much emotion-related material versus memory versus intellect versus whatever, but what good would it do? I knew she wasn’t right. It was as if we’d jumped ahead five years in her Alzheimer’s progression. I could have appreciated the irony of that better if it wasn’t so painful.
I turned. “Mimi?”
“What. What. What’s wrong with me?”
I got up close to the camera. “Some of the neural extractions were lost. I’ve been trying to find them.”
“Yes. I’m here, Mimi.” I put my hand on the box, centered my face in the view screen. “Can you see me?”
“I have the worst nightmares. I don’t want to sleep any more. Am I dreaming?”
“No, Mimi. You’re not dreaming.” We’d hit some sort of tipping point. Mimi knew who she was. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. “Part of you is missing. We’re trying to find it.”
“This is miserable. I can’t—I keep. Walt?”
“It’s me, Mimi.”
“I know. I know it is.”
The phone rang. It was Denise. “I didn’t find another.” She always said that first thing, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up. “But one of our women in the field found someone who owned the white bishop and then sold it. He refused to give her the buyer’s name. Do you want me to contact him?”
“No. I’ll go myself. Give me the information.” I was happy to have something constructive to do, and I figured the guy, whoever he was, was more likely to give the information to me than to my lawyer.
“You want to go on a trip, Mimi?” I called up the instructions for linking Mimi’s eyes and ears to my phone. Until now I hadn’t seen the point, but now I thought giving her distractions might be a good idea. Plus, I didn’t want to leave her.
* * *
I studied the page in my note pad where I’d scrawled her name. Winnette Winfield.
As I understand it, she has several.
How many was several? Was it three? Six? Nine? He hadn’t known; all he’d known was the woman he’d sold his white bishop to had several others.
It hadn’t been hard to find information on Winnette Winfield. Apparently there was only one Winnette Winfield on the planet. She lived in the good old USA—Gaithersburg, Maryland. Her husband was an exec with Goldman Sachs, which probably meant they had plenty of cash.
She worked for the FBI.
My gut had clenched when I saw that. My typical plan B—telling the truth—was off the table. I couldn’t tell an FBI agent I’d committed a felony. Plan C was also off the table, since an FBI agent was unlikely to be intimidated by a seventy-year-old retiree. I’d have to bowl her over with an outrageous offer, then figure out how to raise the cash.
“Wait a minute. Where are my hands? I can’t find my hands,” Mimi said in my ear.
“You’re not in your body, Zipper. We had to transfer you when you got Alzheimer’s. Remember?” She kept forgetting. Everything would be fine, and suddenly she’d blank out and panic.
“I never have to go to the bathroom again,” she said.
I burst out laughing. “Never again. And no more doctors’ visits, except to keep me company.” We’d listed all of these things in the plus column when we laid out the pluses and minuses on a dry-erase board, back when we were deciding whether to take the plunge.
“I miss my hands. I have an itch.”
“You don’t have an itch. No more itches, either.”
“What day is it?”
“Tuesday.” Her mind, minus 28 percent, tended to jump around.
“Tuesday.” She said it as if this was hugely important, profound knowledge.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re trying to find the rest of you.” I took the exit for Gaithersburg. “This didn’t go as planned, but it’s still better. The other way, I was going to lose a little more of you each day. This way, it’s the opposite.”
“You always were the optimist,” Mimi shot back. It was the sort of quip Mimi made all the time when her mind was whole. Hearing it made me miss her. I sped up.
* * *
I played it cool. When Winnette Winfield answered the door, I told her I was collecting Vasa chess pieces as well. I said I’d gotten her name from the collector she’d bought the Vasa from, and decided to pay her a visit.
“To be honest, I wish you’d called first instead of showing up on my doorstep.” She was tall and slightly overweight, a big moon face, frowning at the moment. She had the gruff, no bullshit tone I associate with law enforcement. I don’t know if people with that tone tend to gravitate to careers in law enforcement, or if they pick up the tone while on the job.
“I apologize. You’re right, that was inconsiderate of me. I just get very excited when it comes to these pieces. Can I ask how many do you have?” I tried to make the question sound casual, but it came out breathless.
“At this point I own nine.”
I clutched the doorframe to steady myself. So much for seeming cool and casual.
“Are you all right?”
“Nine. You know what, Ms. Winfield? Between us we own the complete set.”
That clearly surprised her. “You own twenty-three pieces?”
“Let’s put it this way: you have two white pawns, three black pawns, the white bishop, white knight, black knight, black queen.”
Winnette nodded. “I guess you do own the rest.”
“Is there any chance I can see them?” I licked my dry lips.
She checked the time. “I’ve got an appointment. I have to leave in a few minutes.”
“I understand. I won’t take up much of your time.”
Reluctantly, Winnette led me inside, to a room right off the front hall that was set up like a museum, with glass cases floor to ceiling along the walls, a wide glass-covered display case in the center, sculptures on pedestals scattered around the room. I spotted Mimi’s chess pieces and strode over to them.
Nine. There they were. I pretended to admire the work as I licked my lips and considered how to handle this.
“You have an impressive collection.” I looked around, hands behind my back. “You know, it would give me such pleasure to have that complete set.” I tried to look as if a thought had just occurred to me. “Would you be willing to sell them to me for three thousand apiece?”
Winnette drew back her head in surprise. “No. I’m not interested in selling anything. I’m a collector, not a dealer.”
“No, I understand. It’s just—don’t you think the pieces belong together? I don’t know why the set was broken up to begin with—”
“No. I don’t.”
I took a deep breath. I could feel the panic rising. “What if I offered you a hundred thousand dollars for all nine?”
Winnette laughed. “I’d say either you were out of your mind, or you were working some sort of scam.”
“I promise you, it’s an honest offer.” I pulled out my wallet, showed her my military ID. “I can provide references, and pay with a cashier’s check—”
She held up a hand. “Enough. They’re not for sale. Now please.” She gestured toward the door. “I’m late for my appointment.”
I took one last look at the pieces, and headed for the door with Winnette at my heels. I was so close. So close. Scenarios ran through my head as she opened the door to let me out: take them by force; pretend to have a heart attack and steal them when she ran for her treatment kit. If she hadn’t been an FBI agent, probably armed and well-versed in criminal behavior, I might have tried.
* * *
I sat in my library, numb, contemplating burglary. I would have done it if I thought I could, even though Winnette Winfield would immediately know who’d done it and I’d spend three years in prison. But she and her husband lived in a big, expensive house with a valuable art collection. There was no doubt they had a high-end security system, with facial-recognition surveillance, basement-to-roof invisible breach-detection, the whole nine yards. I’d be in handcuffs before I set foot in the house.
“Walt? It’s all right. I’m not afraid to die,” Mimi said.
“Nobody’s dying. Don’t talk about dying.”
“I wasn’t going to say it until we knew for sure. I don’t want to be like this. I want to say goodbye to my mom and pop, and then I want to die.”
I squeezed my eyes closed. Mimi’s mom and pop had died twenty years ago. I wanted to tell Mimi I didn’t want to lose her; I didn’t want to be alone in this house thinking about how my wife had died because I left her with strangers to take a piss. I’d shoot myself first—I’d release Mimi and then I’d follow right after her.
“I don’t want to know when it’s going to happen,” Mimi said. “Okay? Let’s say goodbye now.”
“I don’t want to say goodbye.” I bit off the rest of what was going to be a whiny, self-pitying speech about not wanting to live without her. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t remember being in my twenties, or my forties. I don’t understand those TV shows. I remember understanding them, but I can’t any more. I’m dumb. And confused. And my dreams. I have the most terrible dreams.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
“I don’t want to be like this.”
My phone rang. It was Denise. I’d called her and Alvy on the way home, to tell them what had happened.
“I called and offered her double,” Denise said. “I was going to cover the other half if she accepted. It just made her angry. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you for doing that.”
“I did find out something else about her. Her father died of Alzheimer’s three years ago.”
I wasn’t sure why that was relevant. Then it began to sink in. Winnette Winfield could relate.
“I wasn’t sure if I should tell you that.”
“You’re thinking she might help us if we told her the truth.”
“No, I’m not thinking that at all. I think if you told her, she would arrest you, and if she did I wouldn’t be able to get you off. The feds don’t screw around with this, Walt. They won’t go easy on you because you’re an old guy trying to help his wife. You’ll do five to eight. I’m telling you because you have the right to know.”
“Well, I appreciate that.” As I said goodbye to Denise, I checked the time on the antique table clock Mimi had inherited from her mother. Nine fifteen. In a day, give or take, the batteries would start to fail.
I’d spoken to Ms. Winnette Winfield long enough that I could picture her handcuffing me and reading me my rights. What I couldn’t picture was her breaking down when she heard my story, taking those chess pieces off the shelf and pressing them into my hands.
“Who was that?” Mimi asked through the intercom.
“It was Denise.”
“How is she?” Mimi probably didn’t remember any of the conversation she’d just overheard. Otherwise she would have asked what I’d meant about telling Winnette the truth.
“She’s fine. She’s great.”
I stared up at the set Seva Vasa had sent me, my gaze lingering on the white bishop, the white knight, the black knight, the black queen.
I stood. “Wait a minute.”
“What?” Mimi asked.
I had nearly identical pieces made by the same artist. I could offer to trade.
Only, why would I have offered her two hundred grand if I already had identical pieces? And why would I want to trade my pieces for identical pieces?
An idea came to me, like fireworks going off in my brain. I could switch the pieces without her knowing.
Holy shit. That might work, if I could somehow arrange to be alone in her museum room. I had no idea how I could manage that, but I had to think of a way, and soon.
I went to pack some things. “We’re going for a ride, Mimi.”
“I’ve got nothing else planned. Where?”
“Back to see the woman who has the chess pieces we need. Her father died of Alzheimer’s.”
I dumped a can of nuts, some candy bars, and Cheerios into a grocery bag to snack on in the car.
“Let me talk to her.”
I froze. That would not have occurred to me in a million years.
My wife wants to speak to you. Alone. That might work. I’d probably go to jail, because Winnette would alert the authorities once Mimi told her the truth, but I was willing to trade the rest of Mimi’s mind for time in prison.
Unless Winnette arrested me on the spot.
As I rushed around the house dumping clothes in a bag I called Denise, who told me Winnette was unlikely to arrest me in her own house while off-duty. More likely she’d alert the authorities and let them handle it. Fair enough.
* * *
Twenty years ago there was a huge storm that knocked the power out all along the East Coast for two weeks. A month before we’d bought half a cow directly from a farm in upstate New York, and had all of that beef stashed in a freezer in the garage. Needless to say, all two hundred-odd pounds of it went bad when the power went out. That created another problem: what did we do with two hundred pounds of rotting beef? The trash people wouldn’t take it, and we didn’t want to put it in our car and risk getting a smell in there that would never come out. I came up with the idea of burying it in the woods behind our house.
We decided to do it at night, because the woods are community property. What we didn’t realize as we dragged the rotting meat into the woods in a tarp was that one of our neighbors could see the spot where we were digging from her bedroom, and she was convinced we were burying a body.
Imagine you’re in the woods burying rotting beef at midnight, and suddenly there’s a flashlight in your face.
Mimi and I shouted in unison. My first instinct was to throw my hands in the air; Mimi’s was to swing the shovel she was holding at the intruder.
When he ducked out of the way, pulled a gun and identified himself as a police officer, Mimi chewed him out for scaring us to death. Still holding the gun, the officer told us to step away from the tarp. He pulled it back, exposing the meat.
For a second his eyes got huge, and I could see he thought he was looking at the dismembered body of one of our neighbors. Then he started to laugh.
You don’t know how you’re going to react in a crisis until it happens. Not that a police officer with a flashlight is a crisis, but when he startled us I threw my hands in the air, and Mimi swung a shovel.
* * *
We arrived in Gaithersburg at four a.m., but I waited until eight before knocking on Winnette Winfield’s door.
The best way I can describe her expression upon seeing me is disappointment. “Unbelievable. Am I going to have to take out a restraining order?”
“I’m so sorry to bother you. I promise you, this is the last time you’ll ever see me. My wife wants to speak to you.”
Winnette blinked slowly, like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “And where exactly is your wife?”
I pointed at the army rucksack lying on the stoop beside me. To keep Winnette from thinking this was a scene from Psycho and I had my dismembered wife in the rucksack, I quickly opened the neck of the rucksack and gently took out Mimi’s brain box.
“What the hell is going on?” Winnette growled. “Tell me that isn’t what I think it is.”
“Is that her?” Mimi’s voice came from the box.
“That’s her,” I said. “Ms. Winfield, I’d like you to meet my wife.”
Winnette stared at me, dumbfounded. “You do realize I’m an FBI agent.”
“I’m aware of that. All I ask is that you give my wife five minutes of your time. She wants to speak to you alone. Then you can take whatever steps you think are necessary.”
Winnette hesitated for a moment, then, huffing, swung the door open. “This is just priceless.”
I followed her to her office, set Mimi down in a chair. “I’ll be outside.”
As soon as I pulled the door closed, I ran for the rucksack and carried it into Winnette’s museum room. I’d stuffed the chess pieces into the two pockets on the outside. I pulled them out and set them on the floor, then I went to the display case.
It was locked.
They didn’t look like they locked—they were all-glass in front, with sliding doors. I found the locks on the lip jutting below each shelf.
Moving around the room, I swept my hand over the molding on both sides of the door. Nothing. Where would she keep the key?
On her key ring.
Praying no one else was home, I hurried into the kitchen, cast around, spotted Winnette’s purse on the counter. I rooted around inside, frantically checked the inner zippered compartments. While I was doing this I spotted a ring of keys with an FBI fob on the counter, right beside the purse.
“Mom?” A girl’s voice. Footsteps in the hallway. I went the other way, through a doorway, into the dining room. I hid against the inner wall beside the door.
I waited, heart thumping, while Winnette’s daughter poured herself a bowl of cereal. When, finally, no sounds came from the kitchen, I peered around the doorway. She was nowhere in sight.
I put the keys in my pocket and walked briskly but casually out of the kitchen.
Her daughter, who was in the living room draped in a stuffed chair, looked up as I passed.
I paused in the doorway. “My wife is speaking to your mother. I was just using your rest room.”
I returned to the museum room. There was a small, simple key on the ring. I tried it on the section where the chess pieces were displayed. It slid home and turned easily.
Ten seconds later I had the pieces stashed in my rucksack, the replacements in the display case. I locked it and hurried back into the hall.
Of course, now I had to return Winnette’s keys to the kitchen.
The study door clattered open. I stuffed the keys into my pocket just as Winnette appeared. She got right up in my face. “I will not be party to a felony.”
“You have no right to have part of my brain in your house,” Mimi shouted from the study. “Give it back to me.”
“How dare you put me in this position?” Winnette stabbed a finger at my chest. “You did this to your wife, not me. Now you want me to be accessory to a crime, to risk my career, and if I don’t, I’m a heartless bitch who wouldn’t help an Alzheimer’s victim.”
“I tried everything else first. I offered you ten times what the pieces were worth. I even contemplated burglary. I’m desperate.” I’d been desperate. Now I just wanted to get out of there.
“Please,” Mimi called. “You have no idea. This is hell. Please.”
I retrieved Mimi from the study.
“Please. Please. Help me,” Mimi cried.
Winnette clapped her hands over her ears. “Get out. Get out of my house.” Her daughter was in the hall, wide-eyed.
I grabbed the rucksack and headed for the door as Mimi went on pleading. I glanced at Winnette one last time before closing the door behind me. She was crying, her hand over her mouth. I was glad to see it. She had a conscience, at least. She would probably still turn me in, but she was taking no pleasure in this.
I set Mimi in the passenger seat, shoved the rucksack in the back.
“How could anyone be so cruel?” Mimi said.
“I got them,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“What do you mean, you got them? How did you get them?”
Then I remembered Winnette’s keys. Going back inside was out of the question. I hopped out of the car, went to the big SUV sitting in the driveway, and dropped the keys on the floor on the driver’s side. Hopefully Winnette would assume she’d dropped them there.
I was just getting back in my own car when the front door banged open. Winnette stormed out, her arms filled with chess pieces.
I had the window halfway rolled down when she reached my door. She flung the chess pieces onto my lap.
“Don’t you ever come back here.”
“Thank you so—”
“Don’t.” She stabbed a finger in the direction of my nose. “Just drive away before I change my mind.”
I did as she asked.
“Oh my God. You did get them. How did you know she would bring them out?” Mimi asked as I drove away, my palms damp on the wheel.
“I didn’t.” I hadn’t wanted to tell Mimi my plan ahead of time, in case it didn’t work. Now, as I drove, I explained what I’d done.
A couple of miles from Winnette Winfield’s house, I pulled into a shopping center and parked in the far corner of the lot. After calling up Bat Out of Hell on the stereo I retrieved the hammer and chisel I’d had the forethought to stash under the seat, and went to work freeing the last nine pieces of Mimi as I sang along to Heaven Can Wait.
“Who is this, Bruce Springsteen?” Mimi asked.
“Meat Loaf. You know all the words by heart.” I held up one of the canisters where she could see it. “They’re in here somewhere.” I laughed, my hands shaking, as I hooked up the little machine and installed the canisters one by one.
Copyright © 2016. Lost: Mind by Will Mcintosh