For the hundredth time I start with the toes.
Her cute little toes with nails polished red. The ankle and the pale scar bisecting it. Her pretty feet, sprouting legs spindly like cigarettes.
A torso pops into existence, stretching up and out the legs. Beautiful round breasts.
Memory fragments sculpt her shoulders, her neck, her head. Curly hair blossoms from her scalp. Blue piercing eyes swirl into focus.
Assembled from memory shards in a collage of actions and facial expressions, Miriam’s smiling as she’s smiled a million times before. She caresses my cheek.
“Moment of truth,” she says, perfume wafting in her wake.
I say, “This time, please stay.”
“Can’t promise anything.”
I burn her shape and face and voice in my mind and open my eyes.
In the darkness my computer screen blinks stupidly. A dozen pop-ups fight for my attention, the leaves of my plastic ficus reflect their colors.
I look around, hopeful, not daring to move an inch.
No one replies.
I stand up, stretch my legs, toss my mat back in the closet. Slumping into the swiveling chair I press J on the keyboard, prompting a yellow pad to appear. Under today’s date I type, Creating a tulpa – unsuccessful.
The square of screen-light dances on walls, dims, then disappears as the computer powers down.
I rest my head on the desk.
I should give up. Drop everything and get on with my life and just – give – up. But banging my head on the desk I remember there’s method to my madness. I remember the pain and curiosity which made creating her tulpa the focus of my life these past few years. I remember it’s a bit late for second thoughts and giving up.
I get up, grab my mat and assume the lotus position again.
I’ll power through if I have to.
Through the nose I breathe in a visualized ball of relaxing white light which swirls round my belly, then I exhale that energy out the mouth.
Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out the mouth. Breathe in through the nose –
My gut freezes.
How’s that possible? A remnant, maybe?
Vanilla, and I haven’t even begun visualizing. It can’t possibly be –
Darting through the hallway after the scent, I end up at my apartment door.
Black globs swim in my vision, the door wobbles, the hallway tightens.
A pessimistic voice in my head suggests the perfume must belong to my new neighbor, a Mrs. something or other, but before I can convince myself of that, a knock comes.
I reach out, open the door.
Miriam’s standing there, smiling as she’s smiled a million times before.
She sits beside the kitchen table, sipping chamomile tea. I’m at the edge of my seat, poised to spring up to fetch anything she might need.
Bringing the cup to her lips, she says, “So, Herbie, how have you been?”
“Fine. Very busy.”
“Oh.” Her eyebrows go up. “With what?”
The tulpa guides advise not to broach the subject of creation immediately – rule number 4 – so I have a story prepared.
“Airplane modeling. Plastic airplanes I sell at fairs.”
“They’re in my parents’ basement.” I make a sweeping gesture. “No room for much in this shoebox.”
China clangs as she replaces the cup on the saucer.
My foot dances, I put a hand on my knee, take a few deep breaths. Remember: rash actions could prove disastrous, the newborn tulpa should be approached carefully, with much respect for its –
“Why did you leave me?”
A flicker passes across her face, her expression closes up, becomes unreadable.
Stupid stupid stupid. Now you cocked it all up with your big fat mouth.
She says nothing.
“You followed the rules?” My screen flashes.
“I’m no amateur, Pat.”
His avatar – a pink pony – rolls its eyes. I’m in the private chatrooms of an online tulpa community. Patrice is my closest virtual buddy.
“You give it history?”
“Her. It’s a girl.”
He laughs, covering his face with violet hooves. “Of course it is. So, what’s the story?”
Rule number 2 states you must imagine a believable history for how the tulpa ended up where he/she did. Richer history equals more substance for the thoughtform.
“Knocked on the wrong apartment door while visiting a friend who just moved in this building.”
“Oooh.” The pony cringes. “Smooth.”
I instruct my avatar – a caricature of an 80s glam rock star – to bow theatrically.
“Where is she now?”
“Napping in the living room.”
His avatar enlarges, fills up its chat square. “Keep your eyes on her, man.”
80s rock star nods.
“Well then. Congratulations are in order.” He grins.
My avatar pops the champagne and pours Pink Pony a glass. We toast to my success.
I take it slow, discussing casual topics, giving her space. We eat together, though obviously her plate remains untouched and I end up dumping half the food. Rule number 5 says avoid the outside (tulpas are harder to sustain among real people) so our meals are home-delivered fast food which I don’t mind throwing away anyway.
“Remember when we saw that godawful movie you thought was gonna be a surefire SF masterpiece?”
With my best robot voice I say, “Take my hand and forget about Mars.“
She bursts out laughing. “The cheesiness was unbearable.”
“Excellent trailer though.” I shrug. “Must’ve jammed my camp-meter.”
She places her head in my lap. I stroke her hair gently, a pang of loneliness squeezing my chest.
“You really don’t remember?” I say.
Her body tenses up. I haven’t brought the subject up since that one blunder of mine.
She looks me square in the eyes. “No, Herbie. I don’t.”
I don’t understand why she’s so distressed. She wasn’t the one hurt by her decision to leave. Perhaps my own feelings have seeped into her personality and I should delineate our halves better, separate firmly where I end and she begins.
Straightening up, she says, “What do you remember about that day?”
I dredge up painful memories. “Only that I’ve never been hurt more.”
“Waking up to a goodbye note sucks, doesn’t it?” Tears stream down her face.
“What would you know about it?”
She’s red-faced, about to shout at me, but she composes herself, wipes the tears off with a sleeve.
“You’re right.” Her voice is hoarse and bitter. “I’m sorry.”
Tulpas are thoughtforms nested in our subconscious, and probing those murky depths is supposed to yield answers, provided you probe deep enough.
But now, we’re running in circles. She needs a comfort zone to open up and this isn’t it. We discuss our relationship when we can but avoid the subject of separation; she scares easily and I can’t let my sole successful creation dissolve back into nothingness due to impatience.
We used to be an outdoors couple, late afternoon strolls were our second favorite habit. Being stuck in an apartment for a whole week is just not our natural environment.
“Let’s take a walk,” I say. Rule number 5 be damned.
She tucks a stray hair behind her ear. “But I’m watching this.” The TV shows a black and white archeologist stepping out of a theater screen.
I stand, pull her up. “I’ll tell you how it ends.”
She mumbles a protest but I drag her to the hallway anyway.
“Put your shoes on.” I put on mine.
It feels weird not to talk to her outside but to imagine myself talking (I wouldn’t want people thinking I’m crazy, babbling away to thin air) but other than that everything is as it used to be. In fact, I’m enjoying her presence so much for a moment I forget why I brought her back in the first place.
“You can’t be serious.” She laughs. We’re holding hands, walking along a gravel path in the park. The sun’s breaking above the horizon, coloring scattered clouds in pink, just about to drop away.
There’s a wooden bench to the side. I nudge her playfully towards it, we sit down, she puts her legs over mine.
“No effin’ way, Herbie. I knew Marie as well as you did, perhaps better, and I say you’re a lying SOB.”
A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth. “I’m telling you. Two weeks after you left and she’s flirting with me.”
“That sly French bitch.”
We laugh, she edges closer, rests her head on my shoulder. It’s as if we’re slipping back into the mold made by our previous selves, the ones who really existed together, loved each other.
“She never stood a chance,” I say.
The sky’s a darker shade of blue now. Fireflies light up the trees. I count the green fluorescent specks, try to follow their pattern, lose myself in the bliss for a while.
But the serenity is cast aside by a sudden jolt of uneasiness passing through both our bodies. A blurry shape, kicking dirt, stops, turns towards us.
Miriam’s gaze strays to it. Her jaw drops. “Oh, no,” I hear her say.
“What?” I try following her gaze but can’t, my view’s blocked. “What?” Panic creeps into my voice. Miriam looks shocked, pale, as if staring at a ghost. She speaks to the blur, paying me no mind.
I squint and manage to make the shape out just before my vision darkens. A man stands next to me. He’s shaved, and leaner, but there’s no mistaking him.
“But I remember thinking you up.” I pace my living room. My living room? I don’t know what’s what anymore.
Miriam’s lips quiver. “Rule number 4.” A brief shrug and she sighs. “You know how it is.”
I bounce round the room like a ping pong ball.
“But why?” I’m crying now. “Why would you do that to someone? Why would you drag me through this hell?” Snot’s coming down my nose. I should be embarrassed but I don’t care, none of it is real. I’m not real.
I want to pull my hair out. Scream at the top of my lungs. Nothing matters. I can jump out a window, slit my wrists, and what? She’ll think me back to life if she wants to.
The irony of the situation is not lost on me, though it occurs to me she probably thought me up with this precise history so I’d swallow my predicament swiftly. For all I know, real-me has never even heard of the concept of tulpas.
“It’s shit. Absolute shit,” I scream in her face.
Calming me down so I’m capable of a normal conversation is a daunting task which takes a while.
At last she says, “I’m so sorry.” Her puffy, pitying eyes look right through me.
I sit down as far from her as possible, hug my knees, start rocking back and forth.
The past few days – my entire existence – flash before me. What does this mean? Should I accept that I’m a mere figment of someone’s imagination? Or perhaps I’d be better off dead, swept off her mind like a breadcrumb.
“What’ll happen now I know?” Terror grips my body, making me rock faster.
She stands from the sofa, hand outstretched as if to offer a caress but I crawl back from her, fixing her a don’t-you-even-dare stare.
“I’ll tell you why you exist. You get to decide what happens next.”
Talking, moving, keeps me busy, stops me from thinking about how in reality I lack even a proper mind to think with.
“You left me.”
My chest constricts – the pain I remember, memories of waking up next to an empty bed, the despair, none of that is mine. Things I remember as quintessentially me are fabrications. “You’re lying,” I manage to say.
“You know I’m not,” Miriam says, crouching next to me. This time I don’t flinch.
We sit in silence. After some time I say, “Why?”
She shrugs, puffing her cheeks. A cute gesture, making her look less like a mind-jailer and more like the person I once dated.
“I’m hoping you’ll help me answer that.”
I wake with a start from dreamless sleep. Sitting up, I kick off the sheets wrapped round my legs. Sleeping on the couch is uncomfortable but I’m too enraged to be in the same room with her yet too frightened to go to another apartment – an irrational fear that putting distance between us could somehow dematerialize me.
The person behind that door is me. Regardless of how I feel I’m just a mirage, a dream. These very thoughts originate from the brain cells in that room.
It’s 3 am. Objects around me are shadows, contours in the low light. I’m in desperate need of a distraction.
Gray snow appears on the computer screen. For a brief moment I wonder if electronics malfunction in my Borgesian nightmare but then ChatNet boots up.
“What a twist,” says Patrice, his pony a matured horse now, brass ornaments on the sides of its elongated head.
“You know?” Of course he knows. He is me and both of us are her.
Tilting his horse-head. “Good news travels fast.”
I don’t know what to say, don’t know why I’m even talking to him, can’t say what the hell I’m expecting from this charade of a conversation.
“Look,” he says. “Tulpas can become independent of the brain they share. Self-aware and free-willed. You know all this.”
“What if she’s made me real enough to do her bidding but not to possess free will? I could be reading lines off a script she’s written for all I know.”
A million thoughts race round my mind. My hands go numb and I rub my palms together as if to prove they exist.
The horse shakes its head. “You accept that set of beliefs and you lose automatically. It’s an existential dead end.”
His head zooms in until all I see is his eye.
“Consider yourself lucky Herbert – you were created inside another person’s mind, for a specific reason. People’s lives are meaningless but yours isn’t. People are lonely but you are as close to another person as possible.”
Turning his head he peers through the square with the other eye. “So stop whining and see this as the blessing it is.”
“Wake up. You won. I’ll help you with whatever.”
She groans. I shake her again.
“Uhmmm. What’s the time?” The bedside lamp comes on with a click. “Jesus, Herbert, it’s 5 am.”
Squinting at me with one eye, she says, “What’s this about winning? No obligations, Herbert, I told you.”
“I thought this through. I’m OK.” Pat’s right. At the moment there’s nothing else I can do besides the puppet dance I was meant to perform.
She’s silent for a while, then says, “Go to bed.” A click and there’s darkness again. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
It takes several days to convince her I’m seriously okay with this. She believed me from the get-go I know, but there’s no avoiding the play-pretend tug of war, the win-win situation where she soothes her conscience all while fostering the illusion that I have a choice.
Under close scrutiny Patrice’s theory seems obvious – I’m a bowling ball rolling down a hill, a wind-up doll set on a traced out path. I can throw a fit and refuse to cooperate, or I can go through the predetermined motions head held high.
I choose the latter, because after all, even a set path is better than a dead end.
We’re bouncing memories off one another: she asks the questions and I do my best to fill his big, real shoes.
“You were running late from work. You called me from a bar.”
I take a bite off an apple. “Yup.” A rainy night, torrential downpour, I stopped at Frank’s Cafe, gave Miriam a call, had a few tequila shots, some beers, Mike paid the bill cause he got promoted.
I shrug, biting off another chunk of green delicious. “Can’t say for sure, Mimi, maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What I’m remembering could be your wildest guesses.”
Eyes closed, I force memories to come. Shots, beers, Frank’s Cafe, talking to Miriam on the phone, shots, beers, Frank’s Cafe, Mike paying the bill, talking to Miriam on the phone.
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing comes.”
Shots, beers, Frank’s Cafe, shots, beers, talking to Miriam on the phone, Mike paying the bill – a million memories flick through my mind like it’s some theater with a broken projector, faster and louder, but always the same snapshots, same angles. Flicking until film’s end. Until there’s no memories left and the screen’s a sad shade of beige.
“I can’t.” I stand up. “There’s nothing. I don’t have his eyes. All I can remember is what you remember, your presumptions and guesses.”
“You cheated that night.” Her eyes bulge out. “Admit it. You cheated that night and left me with her.”
“I. Don’t. Know.”
She won’t listen. She chases me out of the room and there’s no apple in my hands, no taste on my tongue or touch on my fingers.
“What happens if I fail?”
So we try. Again and again. But nothing comes, I can’t seem to reach any new insight.
Despite the lack of results she’s no surlier than usual, and most of our fruitless days peter out, leaving us in our separate rooms, avoiding one another.
Some days we don’t even speak, don’t try to remember.
A gleeful stupid smile on my stupid face, I run around the apartment, calling after her.
“Mimi, I remember something.”
I kick her bedroom door open, it flaps inside an empty room. I scour the rest of the apartment. Nobody’s home.
Struggling to keep the memory alive in my head, I lie on the living room couch. It was that night. Miriam was right. Moments before, a trite recollection caused a flood of memories, Frank’s bar, the beers, the tequila shots, talking to Miriam on the phone, a flash of red lipstick on my collar.
I wait. Ten. Fifteen minutes. Half an hour.
Finally, an hour and a half later she’s taking off her stilettos in the hallway.
“Mimi,” I say. “I remember.”
Her eyelids are droopy.
“Great.” She drops her bag to the floor and tiptoes to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
“Mimi?” I knock gently.
Moments later I hear snoring.
Over an omelet I tell her about the memory.
“So,” I say, “you were right. What now?”
“Now?” She stares at empty air for a moment. “Nothing.” There’s a bit of olive on her teeth. “You do your thing.” She waves her fork in the air. “Analyze. Think about why that happened. What I did wrong.”
“Excuse me?” I almost choke on a piece of bread. “I cheated. That’s it. Found someone else. You did nothing wrong. I gave you what you wanted and now it’s time we move on.”
“Not enough.” Her tongue passes over her front teeth, taking that bit of stray olive with it.
“How is that not enough?”
“Because I want to change, stop myself from repeating past mistakes.”
“Bullshit. I don’t buy it.”
“That’s too bad,” she says, avoiding my eyes.
We finish the remainder of our breakfast in silence.
Tonight she’s out again. I’m banging away on the keyboard, talking to Patrice.
“I don’t know what she wants, Pat.” 80s rock star looks tired, hungover.
Patrice’s horse gazes through the chat-window wisely.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
My avatar sighs. “Not to me, man. You must be the clever, philosophical part of her brain.”
He says, “And you are definitely not her engines of deduction, no siree. You can’t even see a romance is developing under your very nose.”
Realization hits me like a ton a bricks.
I pace the hallway, waiting for her to return.
“You’re still seeing him.” I poke her chest with each word.
“So?” She stumbles as she walks.
“I thought you wanted my help to get over him, like I thought I needed yours. But you were playing me to figure out how to get him back, weren’t you?”
“No.” She grimaces.
She glares at me, arms akimbo. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, Herbert.”
“This is a big mistake. I know him better than you. I know things you’ve only picked up subconsciously. He’s an asshole.”
I try talking sense into her but she ignores me and goes to bed.
Behind her bedroom door I hear whistling, a song I know he really loves.
The three of us are having dinner. That is, if you consider her vomit-inducing culinary experiments food. Personally, I wouldn’t give this crap to a starving child.
They’re the epitome of cuteness now. The bastard’s grown stubble, because he knows she can’t resist that, and she’s wearing those pearl earrings he gave her for their second anniversary. Both of them are so goddamn transparent, it hurts.
“Oh my god,” she says, eyes closed. “It’s so delicious with both sauces. Here try.” She squeegees the sauce bowls with a twirl of pasta on her fork, brings it to his mouth.
Kerrist, I’m about to puke.
“Wow.” He chews the pasta. Here’s to hoping he chokes. “You’re the best,” he says.
I jab my fork and spoon at the spaghetti, mainly to make disrupting noise. It doesn’t bother them. Well, he can’t hear me, obviously, and she pretends not to. What a bitch.
“Gosh, I can’t believe we wasted the last three years.” He takes her hand in his. “I was lost without you.”
I roll my eyes so far back they’re just about to pop from the top of my head.
“Me too, Herbie. Me too.”
Good. They deserve each other.
A raindrop hits my forehead. Another makes a splat on my jacket sleeve. A third right in my eye. I stick my tongue out as the rain picks up and the pitter-patter of drops on gravel quickly turns into white noise.
Mountain tops peek out of the faraway mist, triangles in various shades of green.
I’m pining after something – but this can’t be it, can it? A place that doesn’t even exist.
A curtain of rain settles between me and everything else, and just then I realize how pathetic and clichéd I’m acting.
I get off the non-existing bench which holds no real memories and walk the path back home.
Despite my misgivings they stuck together. Right now they’re at the mall looking at furniture. I don’t know how long they’ll last this time, hell, it might even be the real thing. I don’t give a rat’s ass.
I did my best, I really did, but she’s unrelenting.
At first it hurt that she spoke to me less and less. I felt like a toy left in its box, a piece of clothing bought on impulse, worn once and never again.
But one day while they were rolling around in bed something snapped in me. It wasn’t a bad kind of snap, more like the sound of chains breaking, liberating. Saying she no longer needs me started feeling good.
So tomorrow I’m moving out, and I know exactly where.
It’s this place I’ve been dreaming of lately.
My hand’s turning a valve. Water slogs through a hose and a moment later sprays out of sprinklers across a sprawling backyard. There’s a beautiful brick house, with a porch and a swing. I walk up the porch steps, reach for the golden knob which reflects my puzzled expression.
The place is enormous on the inside. I go through the entire mansion, keep opening doors, checking room after room, but there’s no one there.
Relief spreads across my body, and I linger in the huge hallways, smiling until I wake up.
Damien Krsteski is a science fiction author from Skopje, Macedonia. His work has appeared in numerous publications, links to which can be found on his blog: http://monochromewish.blogspot.com.