Ted Bear hung his battered trench coat on the brass hook next to the dining booth. He slid in, sat down and waited for his dead daughter to apparate.
He slouched and sighed deeply, hands splayed on the teal, black and white speckled marble top, his forearms propping up his weary upper-mass, pressing firmly against gravity… as if this posture of exhaustion might win mercy (or perhaps sympathy) from the mindless, indiscriminate hungry maws of hell.
It was no use. Ted slumped further. He was tired.
Outside, a grey gloom gathered, threatening to rain down. Heaven on standby, armed and ready, angels poised to pelt a trillion pellets at the prostrated on Earth, at the misguided hopefuls, the foolish believers.
It’s her birthday, Ted. Stop your moping and pick yourself up.
Ted bowed his head, closed his eyes and took in a slow, deep breath through his flared nostrils. He counted to five as his lungs filled with cool oxygen, the smell of fried grease and fresh coffee.
Okay, Ted, now hold it in. Steady. One… two… three… four… five…
He felt his body sinking again, his feet sucked into a sticky, unseen quagmire. Thirteen… fourteen… fifteen… Ted tensed. The carbon dioxide burned in his diaphragm. Sixteen… seventeen… eighteen…
His legs tingled from the tip of his toes to the thick of his thighs. The weight of it all dragged on him. Twenty-two… twenty-three…
Ted couldn’t hold it in any longer.
Breathe out, Ted. A thin, controlled whoosh of exhalation escaped soberly through Ted’s pursed lips.
OK. Alright. That was good. Now do it again.
Ted repeated this process two more times.
At his age, it took more out of him to focus his sight and to pierce through the veil of reality into Purgatory. He was glad his oldest, Jacob, had come around and now ran the family business. All new clients went through Jacob these days, and for the most part, most of Ted’s old ones as well.
He kept a few, though. For nostalgia. Some who had become friends in the afterlife. Others now part of the family, showing up at inopportune times like when Ted was peeing, arguing with a bank teller or making love to his wife.
He didn’t mind.
It was a gift he cherished, to be their singular line of communication with their loved ones, their left-behinds, their unfinished business and unforgiving kin. Ted was a grief counselor, an estate attorney and quite literally, a spiritual guide, all rolled into one.
But his sight was starting to go. And it worried him. But more importantly, Ted felt emasculated. Old. Increasingly frightened at the idea of potentially becoming “blind”.
Could you? He wondered. Could you actually lose your sight? Go “blind”?
Aside from his biological children, he only knew of two others in the world who had the sight. His adopted son, Hunter, and his mentor, Boyd.
As far as Ted knew, Boyd never lost his sight. Or maybe he did. Maybe God was kind enough to take it from Boyd when he gave him Alzheimer’s in return.
Or maybe Boyd still talked to ghosts at Glenn Meadow’s, and the nurses there discount it as part of his dementia. Who knows? Ted hasn’t spoken to him for years now, maybe a decade even.
Ted opened his eyes and stared at the empty seat across from him with intense concentration.
The black diamond-tufted leather upholstery flickered between a shiny onyx and a pale ash. His sight often flickered these days. Twitching and stuttering before it settled on his subject.
C’mon, Evelyn. Where are you? Where are you? Ted squinted.
“Fresh coffee, Ted?” Marie asked.
Dammit, Marie. Not now!
“Yes, Marie,” Ted said evenly. “Thank you.”
“Alright, darling. Did you want the usual as well? Two sunny side up, brown toast, three strips of bacon… extra crispy?”
“Yes…” Ted drawled absent-mindedly. He caught himself. “Wait, no! Not today. Today I want the eggs benedict with lox and capers. Done medium… and an orange juice. Freshly squeezed… and potatoes. Slightly burnt. With a side of fruit.”
“Fancy schmancy Ted,” Marie ribbed. “What’s the occasion?”
“Hey sugar, S’OK. I was just buggin’ you. You don’t need to tell me anything.”
“Thank you, Marie. I appreciate it.”
“So, did you still want the coffee then?”
Ted breathed in, sucking in deep thoughts. “No, I think I’ll be O.K. with just the O.J.”
“’O.K. with the O.J.’” Marie mimed. “You’re funny. I’ll be right back.”
Ted spied Marie trotting off to the register. He turned his head back to the seat across from him.
“Hello Daddy,” Evelyn said.
Ted’s eyes moistened. She looked beautiful. Short, cropped blonde hair. Her mother’s upturned nose. And the trademarked bright green eyes of the Bear clan.
“You got my favorite breakfast.”
“You never did know it by heart when I was alive.”
“No, I didn’t,” Ted held back tears. “I’m sorry.”
“Well…? You called?”
“I just wanted to say happy birthday. You would’ve been twenty-two today. And I miss you. A lot.” A single tear streamed down Ted’s left cheek.
“Oh Daddy…” Evelyn reached out and pretended to place her incorporeal hand on Ted.
Ted snuffled. “I wish your mother could see you. She misses you dearly too. She told me to wish you a ‘happy birthday’ too.”
“Where is she?”
“She wanted to come, but changed her mind last minute. It’s too hard for her, you know… not being able to see you.”
“I understand. She was always left out. Being the different one in the family.”
Ted studied Evelyn and wondered, what would’ve been different if she hadn’t gone on that trip to Fern Clyffe with Hunter five years ago.
What would she really look like at twenty-two. Would she have had let her hair grow out like her mother? Would she have had bags under her eyes from college exams? Would she have had her forehead crinkle and crease like him, like Jacob now, after a stressful day?
“How’s Jacob?” Evelyn asked.
“He’s fine. He’s running most of the business now.”
“That’s good. And Greg?”
“Just got accepted to U of C, Northwestern and DePaul.”
“Wow. That’s great. He was always the smartest one of us three.”
Ted paused and hesitated.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“He says he’s sorry. He misses you too. And you know he loves you.”
“I don’t care.”
“Alright. I just wanted to say that piece.”
“Well, you did.”
Ted sighed. He probably shouldn’t tell Evelyn he’d forgiven Hunter, and that Hunter was now working side-by-side with Jacob. But he felt obligated to.
She interrupted him. “Listen, Daddy. I should go. Mr. and Mrs. Berkowitz — remember them? — they’re ascending today. I don’t want to miss it.”
“Of course. Right.”
Evelyn slid out of the booth and stood up, revealing the exposed tibia punctured grotesquely through her right kneecap. Ted couldn’t stop staring at it. When the rangers found her, nearly all her bones had broken from the fall.
“Goodbye Daddy. Thanks for the breakfast.” She began to fade, her entire presence shimmering between realities.
She smiled and mouthed the words, “I love you.”
And then vanished.
“Happy Birthday, Evelyn, you little monkey. I love you too…” ☣
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by me, Jinn Zhong…
This Scientific America article: Time on the Brain: How You Are Always Living In the Past, and Other Quirks of Perception written by George Musser
But more specifically, this particular passage:
David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine proceeded to treat us as his test subjects. By means of several visual illusions, he demonstrated that we are all living in the past: Our consciousness lags 80 milliseconds behind actual events. “When you think an event occurs it has already happened,” Eagleman said.
In one of these illusions, the flash-lag effect, a light flashes when an object moves past it, but we don’t see the two as coincident; there appears to be a slight offset between them. By varying the parameters of the experiment, Eagleman showed that this occurs because the brain tries to reconstruct events retroactively and occasionally gets it wrong. The reason, he suggested, is that our brains seek to create a cohesive picture of the world from stimuli that arrive at a range of times. If you touch your toe and nose at the same time, you feel them at the same time, even though the signal from your nose reaches your brain first. You hear and see a hand clap at the same time, even though auditory processing is faster than visual processing. Our brains also paper over gaps in information, such as eyeblinks. “Your consciousness goes through all the trouble to synchronize things,” Eagleman said. But that means the slowest signal sets the pace.
The cost of hiding the logistical details of perception is that we are always a beat behind. The brain must strike a balance. Cognitive psychologist Alex Holcombe at Sydney has some clever demonstrations showing that certain forms of motion perception take a second or longer to register, and our brains clearly can’t wait that long. Our view of the world takes shape as we watch it.
The 80-millisecond rule plays all sorts of perceptual tricks on us. As long as a hand-clapper is less than 30 meters away, you hear and see the clap happen together. But beyond this distance, the sound arrives more than 80 milliseconds later than the light, and the brain no longer matches sight and sound. What is weird is that the transition is abrupt: by taking a single step away from you, the hand-clapper goes from in sync to out of sync. Similarly, as long as a TV or film soundtrack is synchronized within 80 milliseconds, you won’t notice any lag, but if the delay gets any longer, the two abruptly and maddeningly become disjointed. Events that take place faster than 80 milliseconds fly under the radar of consciousness. A batter swings at a ball before being aware that the pitcher has even throw it.
The cohesiveness of consciousness is essential to our judgments about cause and effect—and, therefore, to our sense of self. In one particularly sneaky experiment, Eagleman and his team asked volunteers to press a button to make a light blink—with a slight delay. After 10 or so presses, people cottoned onto the delay and began to see the blink happen as soon as they pressed the button. Then the experimenters reduced the delay, and people reported that the blink happened before they pressed the button.
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Mondays via podcast.