Clean slate, p.1
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       Clean Slate, p.1

           Kenny Kemp
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Clean Slate


  CLEAN SLATE

  Pray it was only a dream.

  KENNY KEMP

  Copyright 2011 by KEI

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  CLEAN SLATE

  It was a dream.

  I knew it was a dream because when it ended—suddenly, with me on a sloping lawn—I was in my bed, staring at the ceiling, filled with tremendous feelings of guilt. It was several minutes before I dared move; I wanted (and didn’t want) to remember everything about the dream. But like all dreams it faded, leaving nothing behind but vague images and an aching sense of remorse. I lay there, eyes open, staring at the textured whirls in the ceiling, the guilt finally dropping out of my mind’s eye altogether, leaving no images behind, just a heavy feeling of self-loathing.

  In my dream, I think I killed someone. When it ended I was crouching on a sloping lawn behind a low hedge, trying not to be seen. It was night and the only light was a streetlight at the end of the block. There were two cars at the curb. I don’t know what was behind me, a house perhaps. No fans of blue or red light passed across the tall trees—there were no police. Yet.

  I sat on the edge of the bed, so weak with anxiety I could not stand. Numbing guilt lay across my shoulders. You are not who you pretend to be, came a thought. You are a murderer.

  “Jesus!” I said, shaking my head and forcing myself to stand. “That’s enough!” I walked into the bathroom and stood at the toilet. The wall mirror to my left reflected a small stand mirror, which coincidentally was pointed at me. I saw myself in its tiny round face. As I peed, I steadied myself with a hand on the wall before me, where two bath towels hung. I felt like crying. I wanted to collapse on the bathtub edge, burying my face in my hands like a woman, and gush out all the pain.

  But instead I stood there, finishing my business, sick to my stomach, unable to turn back to the tiny orb of mirror, where I would have seen the guilt etched deeply into my face like a smoker’s mouth parentheses.

  Thankfully, by the time I was driving to work, a hundred other morning inputs had erased the dream. Showering, shaving, dressing, getting breakfast, unplugging the car, affirming the route. Once I was on the parkway, I engaged the autopilot and leaned back, reaching for my tablet. The splash page projected the news above the tablet in an alphabet pyramid, sorted according to my preferences: sports on top (Tokyo Marauders over the Dodgers, 3-2), finance below (MSApple stock foundering on news of a Senegalese chip problem), world affairs cushioning the upper tiers (the last ethnic Greek just died, his country’s long negative birthrate claiming its final victim. It’s all Greek to me, I thought sardonically, pressing down on the info ziggurat, squelching the tablet to darkness.

  At work, I sat down at my cubicle and the work station awoke. I opaqued the walls and lowered the lighting, sitting in near darkness, feeling a throb in my head. Maybe I was getting sick. Allison, two cubes down, had come into to work yesterday with a cold. Though she was reprimanded and sent home, we all looked at each other in dismay and everyone went to HR for shots. I touched my neck and felt a cough rising. If I got sick . . .

  “Hey, Mitch,” said someone, passing through the opaque air curtain. It was Alex.

  “Hey, Al,” I said distantly. “What’s what?”

  “All of it,” he said. “And none.”

  He peered at me. “You trancing?”

  I laughed and looked back at my display. “No.”

  “Well, you look like shit. You share air with Allison?”

  I shrugged. “We all did, for a second.”

  “What a bitch,” said Al. “Like she doesn’t know better. I saw her coming in, wiping her nose and I lit out. Can’t believe it. She’ll get a reprimand for sure, don’t you think?”

  “Don’t know. Don’t care,” I said. “Kinda busy here. Feelin’ pinched.”

  “About what?’

  “Didn’t sleep well.”

  “You need to trance, man,” said Al. “For a tech, you’re a Luddite.”

  I shook my head. “No, I’m just not a pharmer like you.”

  Al shrugged and left. I squinted into the holo display and touched my neck under my jaw. It felt sore.

  I am a tech, what we call a synthesizer. Since open-source code became the norm (and the end of the competition between the software giants), everyone with a grad degree in CS (and that’s everyone nowadays) is writing device apps and they all have to interact, which is where CrossTalk comes in. We work opposites all day, testing them in every imaginable situation for conflicts. And there are plenty. Linux is rife with bugs, but because it was the original freeware, it has the most programs based upon it. We work in a sort of data cloud in my section, handing off devices when we’re stumped to someone else, and a sort of hierarchy has self-built: I’m the comms app guy; I seem to have more luck sorting out conflicts between programs than anyone else, so I’ve got a dozen devices on my desktop now, waiting to be sussed out.

  At lunch I was sitting with Al, who is the closest thing I have to a friend here and so he’s the only person I’ve invited from the company onto my Facebook page. Like most people, I don’t have many “friends” online; I was a kid when the whole FB universe imploded after people started masking porn actors with the faces of ex-girlfriends’ uploaded pictures and posting them, along with voice clips and videos of people with the pasted-on faces robbing convenience stores and baring their genitals. FB suspended operations to clean up the mess, but in the ensuing three weeks, almost two billion people dropped off. When the site came back online, only a few hundred million people signed back up, mostly from the Third World, where they have no privacy to protect. Almost all Westerners, scared not so much by the “You’re a Porn Star Now!” hack but by the accompanying passcode-breaking, stayed off. My parents, if you can believe it, quit entirely and never returned. We kids called them troglodytes, but I secretly admired their lack of interest in being virtual “friends” with real-world strangers.

  Now, twenty years later, most people are back on FB, but no one I know has more than ten friends and no one posts pictures or personal info. We use avatars anyway for surfing the net, so what’s the point?

  So when you do make a friend—a real friend—you just Facetime him: talk in person. They ruined texting, my mom said, when everyone’s location was GPS-tracked, so no one could lie anymore about being at the library or at work. When the ubiquitous surveillance cameras started syncing with your text messages, showing you walking into the movie theater when you were supposed to be in fifth period MacroEc, what’s the point of even carrying a phone or tablet? I quit carrying mine when my dad started calling me fifty times a day, asking me where I was. As if he didn’t know; they implanted a tracker in me at birth.

  Al and I sat in the lunchroom in a kind of comfortable quiet. I didn’t really like him, but I needed at least one friend here in case I needed a favor. He was too devoted to mood alternators, as he called them. “Up and down, like a clown,” he’d say, thinking he was funny. I’d smile. All this just in case I needed a ride home sometime.

  “Oh,” said Al, “there’s Steve. Shit, look at him.”

  I looked up. Steve was fat—like most of us—and pimply, because Tetra was banned and his parents couldn’t afford gene therapy. But he wore his acne like a badge of honor; it made him stick out, he once told me. “Memorable,” was how he put it.

  Steve had a crush on Mayra. No reason she should have thought he was a noodge, and for a while she didn’t. They went to a movie and a drive along the beach, I heard, and he even bragged that he’d made out with her. Al doubted it, but I didn’t care either way. I wouldn’t mind having a gi
rlfriend if a vacancy came up, but that’s unlikely. Good-looking girls are usually vested in Lifeline, a matching site their parents sign them into when they’re born where they’re matched in a hundred ways to a million guys and over the next fifteen years, their parents zero in on the right one. I never heard of any woman who disliked the guy her parents had chosen for her this way, because though they picked him, the pool of candidates was created using personality profiles that were not under the parents’ direct control. My parents couldn’t afford the membership fee for me in Lifeline (I think they called this a dowry back when), so I was on my own. So far, no luck.

  But I wouldn’t have picked Mayra in any case. She was OK-looking, seemed bright enough, but was usually morose and crabby. Probably perfect for Steve, but he blew it.

  “He blew it,” said Al, reading my thoughts, looking at Steve, who sat by himself, concentrating on his sandwich doggedly, looking pathetic.

  “Yeah,” I said. “No means no to a guy like him.”

  Al nodded. “He’s lucky they didn’t put him jail. All’s he had was those readjustment sessions and community service.”

  “And a restraining order.”

  “He almost got fired because she’s the plaintiff and he has to see her every day,” said Steve, looking around. “And this place isn’t big enough for a hundred foot RO.”

  I shook my head. Steve was typical of our age: lots of braggadocio outside but a marshmallow inside. Gang-dating his way through high school and college, he’d probably never been alone with a girl until post-grad, because of the unholy cabal of overprotective parents and the nanny state. Mayra was probably the first girl he’d ever kissed and so he had no experience to fall back on when the urge hit him and he started pawing her and she pushed him away. Ironically, it would have been worse for him if she hadn’t tazed him. That gave him some sympathy at the hearing—he was only trying to kiss her, after all—and so he didn’t get incarcerated. But the RO stood and whenever Mayra came into a room where he was, he had to leave—it was like they were opposite poles on a magnet.

  No one talked to Steve about this, of course, even though the news holos popped up from our tablets within moments of the verdict. What’s really sad is that no one talked to Steve now, period. He was a ghost.

  “We should talk to him,” I said.

  “About what?” said Al. “What would you say?”

  “I don’t know. How’s it going?” I ventured.

  Al snorted. “And after he says, ‘Terrible,’ what do you say then?”

  I shrugged. What would I say then? “You’re probably right,” I said, turning to my own lunch. “Wouldn’t help anyone.”

  That night I had the dream again. I was kneeling on the lawn, afraid of being seen, looking around. It was dark, but in my dream I could see everything otherworld clearly. The empty street. Two cars at the curb, one with a mashed fender. Didn’t notice that before. The lawn rolling down in swells. Palms on the parkway, shielding the street light. Beyond the street, darkness. I turned. Behind me, a Spanish-style house with a red tile roof and dark windows. It must be late.

  And my heart pounding. I’m sweating. My nose is running. Suddenly I see movement and there’s Allison standing in a window, behind some gauzy curtain. But I know it’s her. That’s when I get the feeling that this is a dream, but the thought gets cut off when I run the back of my hand across my runny nose and it comes away bloody. I taste blood on my lip as I turn my hand over. It’s covered with dried blood, and I know it’s not mine.

  My stomach retches and I taste bile. I spit and suddenly I can’t see. I reach up and find my forehead is bleeding. I stand up and look back at the house. Allison is gone. I trot down the lawn, vault over the car with the lookie-here fender, and slip on the wet pavement beyond into a flying lurch. The far side of the street is a cliff and I tumble into the darkness.

  I awoke, not like they do in the movies, where the guy sits suddenly bolt upright, panting. I just lay there, my fists clenched at my side, my head throbbing and my tongue searching for blood inside my mouth. My lips were parched and my nose was running. Shit. Allison gave me a cold after all. It was still dark and I got up to wash my face. I didn’t turn on the lights. The water was cold and when I cupped my hands under the faucet, I started to shake. I did something horrible in that dream. I’d had dried blood on my hands. It wasn’t mine, but I was injured. A fight? An accident? Yes. The car fender was damaged. But no one was around. Just me and the darkness, then and now.

  “You remember your dreams?” I asked Al as we left work the next day.

  He shrugged. “Just the ones where I’m, like, naked in public or late for something. You know, performance anxiety stuff.”

  “I’ve had the same dream two nights in a row,” I said. “I wake up feeling guilty, like I did something terrible.”

  “You?” laughed Al, passing his hand across the car window. The sewing machine motor spun up. His Hebei spit out the cord and the driver’s door parted slowly.

  “I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m freaking. Feeling guilty about a dream.” I shook my head. “Stupid.”

  “Dreams are just our synapses doing routine maintenance,” said Al. “At the most, the mind conjures up some scenarios, usually nonsense stuff.”

  “Allison was in it,” I said absently.

  “I hope you breathed on her,” said Al.

  “She wasn’t really a part of it, I think,” I said. “That was the tip-off—even while I was dreaming, I knew something was off.”

  “Off the chart,” said Al, getting into his car. “I think dreams let us explore things we’d never do in real life so we don’t end up in a bell tower squeezing off a few at the Allisons of the world.”

  “Pure imagination, then?”

  “Yeah. Anyway, why would you take a dream seriously that has Allison in it? That’s a sign right there. Your mind was making it up as you went along, throwing stuff in just for fun. But here’s a better question: why is it that we take our bad dreams seriously and dismiss our good ones?”

  “Dismiss ‘em all, right?” I asked, relieved.

  “If I had ‘em, I would,” said Al, putting the car into gear. “But I never remember my dreams—I think it’s the alternators.”

  He pulled out of the stall and left with a wave.

  I didn’t have the dream that night, and I was relieved. The talk with Al had helped, I guess. It was just a dream. The anxiety and guilt I’d felt as a low-grade fever had abated over the last couple of days till now it was just a dim memory, safely in the past. I had resolved that if I had it that night, the next day I would ask Al for something from the garden he pharmed.

  Which isn’t to say I didn’t dream. I’m told we all dream, but some people just can’t remember them. But we can train ourselves to remember by laying quietly upon waking and focusing on the events we were just experiencing. That night I had a dream about a football stadium, but there was no one in it but me. I was sitting in the stands. I had popcorn and a beer like there was a game, but I was alone. The stadium lights were on but there was no one but me there. I was looking at the field and suddenly had the urge to be down on it. I stood up and the dream ended.

  I also dreamed that I was riding in a car with a woman I’d never seen before. She had pale skin and red hair that swept down over one eye. We were in a car from some old movie and we were going very slowly along a street lined with palm trees. She was looking out the open window and smoking a cigarette. I’ve never met anyone who smoked and the glowing red tip of the cigarette was a fascination, as well as the way the smoke drifted out of her mouth to be caught by the cool breeze as we moved slowly down the block. She laughed and turned to me, flicking ash out the window. “I’m dead,” she said, tossing her head back and laughing. “And you killed me.”

  When she looked back at me we were stopped and I opened the door and fell out of the car onto the wet street. She laughed again and shook her head like it was a joke.

  My work was suf
fering. In the course of my day I have to try to imagine every possible device use and see what bugs fall out. But I spent most of the next two days just sitting at my desk looking at the “vices” (as we call them in our glib humor) and feeling a vague dread of them. Instead of working, I spent hours online learning about dreams: Freud, Jung, and the others. All conflicting, all guessing on most things, except the overall beneficial effect of dreams and how rats die when their REM sleep is disrupted.

  So the good thing was I was still dreaming. The bad thing was I was still dreaming.

  I thought about going down to HR and making an appointment with the psych doc, but decided against it. He’d just tell me what I already knew, and then he’d probe me for details, which would undoubtedly end up in my file. No thanks. If I was going to go crazy, I didn’t want the whole office to know it until they found me with the gun in my hand.

  I had to laugh. I’d never touched a gun and knew nothing about them. I wondered what kind of gun people used to kill themselves with. I didn’t even know how to get a hold of one. I was sure they could be had for a price, but finding my way to one would be like programming my car to drive to South Central. It wouldn’t do it, not with my profile.

  Maybe I’d Pharm-out, like Tracy McAllister did in college, O.D.ing on some exotic Balinese concoction involving hallucinogens and depressants. The whole campus got drug training after that. You were allowed to nuke your brain on whatever substance you could find, but dying was out of the question in our brave new whatever. The adults frenzied and we all got counseled until no one had a thought whatsoever, much less a self-destructive one.

  Now, out of college, I have a job, a car, and a debit account, but I still wonder what it feels like to grow up. My dad wears short pants and Nikes. You’d never know he was a genius financial guru. My mom jogs and has better abs than I do. They’re not growing up; why should I? I’m afraid, that’s all, and my store-bought cynicism about everything doesn’t cover this feeling that I am a bad person who got away with something evil. Every time I give myself a minute to think, the sick-to-my-stomach feeling comes back. I got drunk last night and the only thing I could remember from my sleep was standing looking down at a body of a woman in a ditch. Her face was covered with her hair. She was bloody and so were my hands.

 
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