Static

static

Static

by Raydon L. Reyes

*originally published in the March 23 issue of Philippines Graphic magazine

 

If Nelly could liken Dr. Dumo’s face to that of an animal, it would be that of a mole. His face seemed to protrude forward like a small hill growing from the ground. His eyes, although not entirely black as a mole’s, might as well have been black. It was impossible to read them, to look for something that would betray any hint of feeling beyond simple acknowledgement of her presence in the room. All that he needed were whiskers to complete the look.

“Something’s not right,” Nelly muttered as she watched Dr. Dumo scribble what she only guessed were notes on his clipboard.

“Okay. Can you be more specific?”

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” the 13-year-old said. “It’s just that Achilles is acting like himself, but also not himself. There’s something off. I’ve noticed it ever since he…uh…came back.”

“Listen, Nelly,” Dumo started, seeming to lose his patience. A common occurrence whenever the two of them talked. “For me to help you, I’m going to need more from you. Now, when you first came here, I already told you how this works. You come here, I attach the nodes on your temples…”

“…and you take the memories I have of Achilles and resurrect him based on those memories.”

“You’re a smart kid. But ‘resurrect’ isn’t the word I would use.” Dumo leaned back on his seat and adjusted his glasses. From across the scientist’s desk, merely less than a meter away, Nelly felt as though there were miles in between them. The white coat Dr. Dumo was wearing didn’t help. It made her feel like she was in a mental ward, although they were really in the cognitive technology laboratory Dumo and his partner Rob had set up. To comfort herself, she visualized the exit to the building, only a few corridors away.

“Remember that Achilles is just a hologram now. That’s not his original body. What we did was extract your memories and reconstruct your dog electronically according to how you remember him.  So his behavior should resemble your original dog with up to 95 percent accuracy. We can go even higher if you remember something new about him that we can input into his program.”

“Oh..um…Well his brother Hector…”

“Yes?”

“He hasn’t really warmed up to the new Achilles yet. It’s been a month and he still treats Achilles like an outsider, always barking or growling at him. But they used to be so close before,” Nelly stammered.

“I see. Well, I’m not really an animal behaviorist. That’s my partner, Rob. He’s in Makati right now taking care of some legal paperwork for when we launch this service,” Dumo began to shuffle his papers, indicating the conversation was nearly over. “But if I’ll make an intelligent guess, maybe Hector liked being the only dog left in the household. And now that Achilles is back, Hector now viewed his brother as competition for food and attention.”

Unconvinced, Nelly fidgeted with her hands and tried to swallow Dumo’s explanation—more of a dismissal, really. Her mother, who had been staying silent beside Nelly the whole time, finally spoke out. “Thank you, Martin. I’m really sorry for bothering you like this.”

“No problem, Evelyn. I should be thanking you for helping with my pilot-tests with our product since the beginning,” Dumo said, softening his tone suddenly. “I’m hoping to get this out in the market by the last quarter of this year. It’s been, what, six years since we finished it, after all. Maybe we can use Nelly and Achilles for testimonies?”

“Absolutely. Just tell us the date and place and she’ll be there,” Evelyn said. Nelly wondered why adults often speak about children in the third-person point of view, as if they weren’t in the same room with them. When adults do it to each other, it’s rude. But when they do it to their kids, it’s a different story.

“Okay, if that’s all, I really have to follow Rob to Makati. Let’s have dinner soon to talk about specifics, all right?” Dumo stood up and led Evelyn and Nelly out of his office.

On the southbound ride home to Alabang, Nelly stared at the series of holographic billboards that greeted their car on the skyway. Holograms had been rapidly replacing so many entertainment products during the past years—from television to video game platforms and movie screenings. “This is real 3-D,” the advertisements echoed when the first line of hologram emitters hit the market, practically catapulting the blue and red 3D goggles into extinction. Nothing could beat holograms that you could actually touch with your hands.

“Why didn’t Pa come with us?” the question slipped from Nelly’s mouth.

“You know your father can’t drive anymore.”

“He doesn’t have to drive. He could have just come with us. Get out of the house for a change.”

“Nelly!” the volume of Evelyn’s voice startled her. “Don’t start with me.”

Defeated, Nelly sank back into her seat and continued gazing outside. She briefly recalled the accident. She was eight. Their trio of a family was driving up to Baguio for their Christmas vacation, with Nelly’s father Joseph at the driver’s seat. They never could figure out what exactly happened. The weather couldn’t have been better. There wasn’t any earthquake. But for some reason Joseph lost control of the wheel and before they knew it, their sedan had broken the barrier lining the cliff. The last thing Nelly could remember before passing out was the upside-down image of her mom and dad hanging from their seats, blood trickling from their heads. Evelyn said Nelly entered a coma that lasted for three weeks.

When she woke up and went into physical and psychological therapy for more than a year, her doctor had recommended getting a pet to aid in the recovery process. “Dogs, in particular, have been scientifically proven to help kids deal with emotional trauma,” the doctor said. “There has also been some evidence that having a dog helped kids physically recover as well.”

Evelyn knew someone in the neighbourhood who had an Aspin (Asong Pinoy or Filipino Mongrel) that had just given birth. Nelly immediately fell in love with the eldest of the litter, a white puppy with brown spots adorning its fur, almost like coffee stains. She noticed another puppy, this time purely chocolate in color, always trailing the eldest wherever it went. It broke her heart to have to separate the two so she got them both, much to Evelyn’s chagrin.

The doctor was right. Getting the puppies did help with her recovery. For some reason, the puppies allowed her to take her mind of the accident. She felt good, being able to take care of them—feeding them, taking them to their neighbourhood veterinarian to get shots, walking them around the village, teaching them tricks; watching them grow. Being responsible for two other lives gave her a sense of effectiveness and capability. Plus, besides Nelly’s friend Pia, the dogs gradually became her sole source of joy and unconditional love.

She had a hard time getting these from her parents. After the accident, they were never the same. Evelyn transformed into a complete control-freak, suffocating her with her myriad rules of what she could and couldn’t do, either inside or outside the house. Joseph became a shell of what he was, refusing to leave their home and almost always spending everyday inside the room he shared with Evelyn.

Adults have the weirdest ways of coping with things, she once thought.

Nelly was already half-way through her first year in high school and yet her father still treated her as that eight-year-old kid pre-accident. Needless to say it frustrated her, especially since she needed her parents at such a crucial time in her life when so many changes were happening. She was one of many girls who had begun their growth spurts, well ahead of the boys. Her breasts were already forming lumps on her chest, the outline made by her hips resembled a soft C more and more; she began literally looking down on boys her age because she now towered over them by a few inches. It was hard to believe she had once broken her right leg from the accident.

It didn’t help that Evelyn treated her growing up as if it were a sin—always making her cover up in layers, refusing to teach her about make up, covering her ears at any suggestion of sex-talk. “You’re much too young for that. You’re still a little girl. Our little girl,” her mother would say as a kind of verbal screen, just before caressing Nelly’s cheek like a doll.

Arriving at their home, Nelly and Evelyn were immediately greeted by Achilles and Hector, with the latter still displaying hostility towards its replacement brother. Nelly knelt down to rub both dogs’ backs, carefully avoiding their heads. She learned long ago that contrary to what TV shows and literature would have you believe, dogs hated being patted on the head. For them, it’s a forceful gesture of domination, and no creature wanted to feel being under something or someone else. Not even dogs.

Nelly shifted her attention to the texture of Achilles’ fur. Nothing felt different. It felt exactly as it did, especially before the real Achilles contracted the intestinal infection that would eventually take his life a couple of months ago. Was her doubt all in her head?

 

***

On the dining table lay a medium-sized birthday cake, marinara spaghetti, and breaded fried chicken Evelyn had ordered. In a different time, Evelyn would have prepared everything from scratch. But that was long ago, before she had to take the reins on being the breadwinner of the family. Nelly once helped her make Christmas preparations by making fruit salad while Evelyn cooked caldereta and her signature carbonara for noche buena. But that probably wouldn’t be happening this year. Evelyn was too busy with her job as a freelance accountant for her clients comprising primarily doctors and lawyers. It gave her the opportunity to work at home but she could no longer devote as much time to household chores. And so, Nelly helped a lot. She made her own bed, swept the floor, did her own laundry; learned to be generally responsible. Sometimes, her right leg, particularly her shin, would still hurt when she worked around the house. But she didn’t mind it too much.

“Happy birthday, Pa!” Nelly uttered.

“Thanks, princess.”

“Pa, you really shouldn’t call me princess anymore. I’m 13 now.”

“No, you’re not. You’re eight.”

“You’ll always be eight to your father, honey. That’s how fathers are,” Evelyn interjected. By this time, Nelly was already used to her mother making these kinds of excuses for her father. Sometimes, it still got to her nerves. But what use was getting annoyed?

“I got you something. It’s perfume. Lacoste Green. I saved my allowance for two months just for that.

“Thanks, princess. I love it.”

“Why don’t you try it on now?”

“Okay.” Joseph had only torn the plastic seal when Evelyn quickly stood up and grabbed the perfume from his hand.

“No!” the volume of Evelyn’s voice startled her daughter.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s dinnertime. The scent will mix with the food. I don’t want the perfume to ruin our appetites.” Another episode of her mother’s acquired OC-ness, Nelly thought.

“I’ll use it later, princess.” Joseph smiled at Nelly. She could only return it awkwardly before turning her gaze back at her food. She peeked under the table, saw Hector chewing on Joseph’s foot, and shooed him away. The dogs never really warmed up to Joseph since Evelyn and Nelly got them. Not everyone was a dog person. She read online that even though dogs were one of the most common choices for a pet, it took a certain personality or aura to jive with them. Obviously, her father didn’t have that.

Later that night, she passed by her parents room after doing her nightly rituals in the bathroom. The door was slightly open. She peeked in and saw Evelyn and Joseph sitting on their bed side by side. They were talking. Or at least her mother was. Joseph merely nodded and listened.

“She’s turning into quite the beautiful lady, isn’t she, heart? I don’t want her to grow up too fast. I want her to be our little girl forever. But at the same time, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop it. If only you could…If only you could see it, heart.”

“Oh, heart,” Joseph replied. “What are you talking about? She’s only eight years old. She’s got miles to go before she grows up.”

It was weird hearing her parents talk about her. It was weirder, still, to know her father still sees her as a little girl; that she was forever eight years old, unable to comprehend that she’s capable of growing up, unable to absorb any droplet of change that managed to sneak into their home. Her mother had explained that the accident did this to him. He had suffered no other major physical injuries except for brain lesions. These lesions got him stuck at a point five years ago when everything was still perfect. Joseph was still the breadwinner, working as an architect at a major firm. Evelyn played the role of happy housewife while still taking a couple of clients for her freelance accounting job for extra income. The home felt safe and warm, like nothing bad could ever happen to their family.

Back in her room, she ushered Hector and Achilles by the foot of her bed. She brought leftover chicken to give to them, careful to remove all the bone since dogs had a hard time breaking them down and digesting them. Both dogs approached Nelly when she reached out her hand with the bits of chicken flesh. But only Hector actually ate them. Achilles merely sniffed at her hand and stared happily at Nelly, wagging his tail, as if satisfied to just have her there without having to do anything.

 

 

***

“He doesn’t really learn new tricks anymore,” Nelly said. Pia watched as her friend tried to make Achilles fetch a stick in the garden with no luck.

“How far did you get before the real Achilles got sick?”

“I could make him sit down and roll over, high-five me, and he could leap over a wooden board I made for him.”

“Wow, all that and he couldn’t fetch a stick?”

“He was learning too fast. Hector couldn’t catch up. I wanted them to learn tricks together so I focused on teaching Hector for a while.” Nelly stared at the wooden stick. “I always thought there’d be more time.”

Pia noted the abrupt silence that followed and the sad look that crept onto her friend’s face. To change the mood, she pointed out, “Hector can fetch now, can’t he?”

Brought back from her haze, Nelly answered, “Yeah. Watch.” Nelly wagged the stick in front of Hector and threw the stick towards the perimeter of the garden before shouting, “Hector, fetch!”

Almost instantly, Hector sprang up and ran after the stick, with Achilles not far behind to chase his brother. Alarmed, Nelly clapped her hand to call the hologram’s attention. “Achilles! Achilles! Don’t! Come back!”

But as with the real Achilles, deafness took over the holographic version after setting its sight on something. Seconds later, the two dogs were almost near the fence of the garden. But only one of them made it to the stick. Achilles had all but disappeared.

“Crap,” Nelly sighed.

“What the heck happened?” Pia saw the whole thing. One moment Achilles was chasing Hector and the next, an electronic flash was distorting the hologram’s body, transforming it into static before vanishing completely.

“That’s what happens if it goes beyond the holo-emitter zone thingy,” Nelly explained. “The emitter is fixed on a spot at the center of the house, near my father’s den where he used to make his sketches. If holo-Achilles goes beyond the zone, he disappears and I have to reset the emitter. Don’t worry. It’s not like he’ll be hurt or anything. He probably won’t even remember that he disappeared.” She further stated that getting the hologram wet would have the same effect.

Relieved, Pia suggested that maybe Nelly could still do something about teaching holo-Achilles new tricks. People with virtual pets usually had files added to their pet’s program for them to perform new tasks. Maybe Dr. Dumo had some that he could give her.

“You could probably get them for free. Your mom’s close friends with him, right?” Pia asked.

Nodding, Nelly knew Pia was right. Evelyn and Dumo were old schoolmates and buddies in college. Dumo went on to pursue Cognitive Psychology and Technology as specialties, becoming more and more interested in creating artificial cognition, mainly using holograms. Evelyn had once narrated that Dumo courted her, but she had politely turned him down, preferring to be friends with him instead. He didn’t take it well at first, refusing to talk to her for a few months. But eventually, they managed to become friends again, although not as close as they were before Dumo confessed his feelings. Nelly wondered if that’s the reason Dumo was sometimes cold to her. She was the daughter of the man her mother chose. Say what you want about moving on but does the sting of being rejected actually ever leave?

“Sounds like a great idea. But I feel bad about asking for a freebie.”

“They haven’t even launched the product yet. They should view it as a favor that you’re testing it for them for free in the first place,” Pia argued, flipping her long black hair. “If Dr. Dumo doesn’t work out, maybe you can talk to Dr. Rob. Charm him a little.”

“Pia!”

“What? Don’t tell me you haven’t checked him out. He’s a total eye candy.”

“My mom would kill me,” Nelly said with a hint of guilt.

“Aha! So you were checking him out,” Pia giggled. She had always been the daring one between the two friends. Although Nelly noted that she was all talk. She always talked about wanting to flirt with boys, or men, much older than her but it never got beyond just talking. Although whenever rumors surfaced in the school about her having a boyfriend from college, Pia made no attempts to stop them. Let them think what they want. It helped her rep for people to think she can snag a college boy while she was barely past their first semester in high school.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Pia teased.

“I’ll have to take the bus. I don’t think my mom can take me this week. She’s too busy with clients,” Nelly contemplated.

“Why don’t you ask your dad to take you?”

“My dad doesn’t really drive anymore. Actually, my dad doesn’t really do anything much anymore. Not since…”

“Oh yeah,” Pia said, embarrassed to have even brought it up.

“I’m just thankful he’s still with us. It could have been worse. He could have… I mean, even though he doesn’t really know what’s going on, I’m glad he’s here.” Was Nelly glad, really? What she’s saying sounds good. Having her father with her and her mother was better than him dying. But really, what was the difference now? Joseph never got past the state he was in five years ago. He didn’t grow anymore, like all persons did normally. It was like she was leaving him behind little by little as she, herself, grew. Or it was more like he had left their family long ago, even though he was still here.

Sometimes, when it was just Nelly and her mother, Evelyn would say things like, “I miss your father sometimes.” Nelly would correct her by saying that Joseph was still here, and Evelyn would agree. But her mother’s words resonated within her. She wanted her father back, even though he lived right there with them in the house. What a strange feeling, she thought.

“I’m doing it. I’ll go to Dr. Rob and ask him if we can do something about Achilles. I’ll just commute.” Nelly couldn’t do anything about her father but at least she could try with Achilles.

“Commute? Now I know your mother will really kill you,” Pia said, covering her mouth in an overdramatic way.

 

 

***

“Dr. Rob!” Nelly called out from the lobby of the laboratory.

“Nelly!” Rob turned around and smiled, setting Nelly’s cheeks on fire. He really was super cute. Not cute. Hot. Super hot, even though he was already in his late thirties, a couple of years younger than her mother and Dr. Dumo. “What are you doing here? Is everything all right? Is your mom with you?”

“Everything’s just fine,” Nelly replied, trying to play it cool. “I came by myself. I wanted to ask you something about Achilles. I’m sorry for just coming here like this…um…without making an appointment or anything.”

“Sure. I always have time for pretty girls” Rob teased, melting Nelly’s insides just a little bit. “Come into my office.”

Inside, Nelly quickly noticed the difference between Rob’s office and Dumo’s office aura-wise. Here, she didn’t feel like running out the door to escape. Or maybe Rob’s presence made her feel at ease. That and the odor of green tea emanating from the reed perfume diffuser on top of Rob’s desk.

“Where’s Dr. Dumo?”

“He’s meeting a supplier for our holo-emitters. He might not be back until later this afternoon,” Dr. Rob said. “How’s Achilles?”

Nelly proceeded to explain holo-Achilles situation to Dr. Rob. How he wasn’t learning new tricks anymore, that Hector always showed hostility toward him, how she always felt that something wasn’t right with him even when he wasn’t acting too differently from the old Achilles. All the while, Rob listened to him with a warm assuring vibe, never breaking eye contact, nodding and smiling occasionally. It was at this point that Nelly took his whole presence in, observing his smooth skin, the square, angular jaw, the chinito eyes that seemed to be always smiling; his thick, black hair that parted on the right, never out of place. Dr. Rob had this vibe that made you want to hang out with him. And maybe do other things. She never felt this way with other adults.

“Dogs aren’t like us,” Dr. Rob explained. “We’re primarily visual beings. We know what people look like by remembering and recognizing their facial features. And we place a sense of sentimentality on time spent together with them.” Dr. Rob used the same words as the terrible Dr. Dumo when he described how their technology worked. But the way he delivered it made you want to listen forever, just so you could spend more time with him. It was no wonder that between him and Dumo, he was the face of the company—the one who always faced clients, went to meetings, sold the product. His job was to draw people in. Dr. Dumo was better off behind the scenes, not facing anyone at the risk of turning them off.

“What does all this have to do with Achilles?”

“Well, you said that Hector had been hostile with Achilles. You see, dogs rely a lot on their sense of smell when socializing with humans and other dogs. I wonder if you’ve noticed that even if you cover your face and dress differently, your dogs still recognized you and approach you like nothing has changed?”

Nelly flashed back to an experiment she did once, covering her face with a scarf and changing her voice to pretend that a stranger had invaded their house. But Hector and Achilles still came up to her, wanting to be petted; the look of recognition staining their respective faces.

“We can’t copy your dog 100 percent. Holograms don’t emit odors. That means Hector can’t recognize him because he literally doesn’t smell anything. So in a way, this version of Achilles will always be a stranger to Hector. And behaviorally, he’s probably acting strange too. We based it on your memories of him, after all, not the way he actually behaved back then. I hate to say this but human memory is not that reliable. And because he’s based on your memories, he will never learn anything new. He’ll always stay the way he was before he died.”

“You’re saying that he won’t really grow anymore? He won’t change?” Nelly imagined Hector progressing through life, learning new tricks, growing up, having puppies with a female dog, growing old. Meanwhile, Achilles would stay the way he was, frozen in time, immortal at least until the holo-emitter finally breaks through decades of use. Somehow, that scene seemed familiar.

“Have you ever tested this on people?” the question comes out of Nelly’s mouth as naturally as a person exhaling, surprising them both.

Taken aback by the question, Dr. Rob remained silent, losing his confidence and composure for the first time since Nelly entered his office.

“Dr. Rob?”

No answer. Something connected in Nelly’s head. Grabbing her bag, Nelly practically sprinted towards the exit without even saying goodbye.

“Nelly! Where are you going?” Dr. Rob called out after her.

 

 

***

Her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. She couldn’t control her breathing. Her right leg wanted to give out, her shin hurting like crazy as she walked briskly towards her house. But there was no stopping her.

In her mind she looked for signs, like a person who just found out she was sick and was now checking every nook and cranny of her body for symptoms. He never got any injuries from the accident. The dogs never warmed up to him and always treated him like a stranger. He stopped drawing. That look on her mother’s face when Nelly gave him the perfume.

“Pa! Pa!” Nelly called out from inside the house after arriving, throwing her bag to the floor. Joseph emerged from the bedroom and met her in the hallway.

“What’s wrong, princess?” The face that greeted her was familiar and yet suddenly alien at the same time.

“Nothing. I just need you to come with me.” Nelly practically dragged her father down the stairs and out the front door. As they were walking, more memories rushed through her head. He never left the house, ever. He never moved on from her being an eight-year-old. He never gained new memories. And how long had her mother and Dr. Dumo been friends? How long ago did he and Dr. Rob create the tech for bringing dead pets back to life in hologram form? Six years ago? A year before the accident.

Passing the living room, the two caught Evelyn’s sight who witnessed the two walk out into the driveway and towards the street. Panicking, she ran after them. “What are you doing? Nelly! Heart! Come back!”

But Nelly persisted. Just before they reached the sidewalk, she felt a slight electric buzz on her right palm and when she looked back, she saw her father’s image turning into static. Nelly let go and covered her mouth with both hands, all her fears confirmed. Evelyn, on the other hand, grabbed her hair in helplessness and collapsed onto the ground. Both mother and daughter could only watch a confused Joseph say, “Heart? Princess, what’s wr—“ before disappearing in a flash of light. – ###

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