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72 Versions of Simon
By Lonnie James
Simon rolled over, reached out, and turned off his alarm clock before it sounded and frayed his nerves. They were frayed enough. Small amounts of blood smeared the bedsheets from familiar half-moon indentations in his palms. Sometime during the night, he had balled his fists so tightly his fingernails embedded themselves in his palms and drew blood. It wasn’t anything new, though. Bloody palms, biting down on an already shredded lower lip, and constant stomach pain were normal in Simon’s sleep and waking life. But today wouldn’t be normal. Today, she was coming.
And she was totally different.
He fell back into the tangled linen, drew his knees into his chest, and sighed. Another night of tossing, turning, and bad dreams. He never remembered anything concrete, only those faint haunting ghosts leaving unease and tension when he awoke. The dark smudges under his eyes and his palm scars were testaments to his restlessness.
Simon swung his legs over and sat on the edge of his bed, his eyes closed, his body tense, and doubled over as the pain temporarily overwhelmed him. He rocked back and forth and colored the bedsheets with more traces of blood. It was his stomach again. It was always his stomach, but he had to get up. Everything had to be perfect. He had a date later on in the day with a woman who had tracked him down. They saw each other’s doppelgänger on Peek.
These days, people saw their twin doing something, dating someone, marrying someone, opening a business, and many would try to emulate the behavior. Wall Street had even opened another exchange based on incidents and time differences between dimensions.
He sat with his eyes closed trying to ignore the light streaming through the window, the irritating sounds of the city, the traffic, the anger, his stomach, but he couldn’t. His next-door neighbors were already up and arguing. The pitch and volume of their fight rose and fell like a bad song on a constant loop. Today was the same as yesterday and the day before and the day before.
The wife said something Simon couldn’t decipher, and the husband grunted a response. The wife said something else and her tone rose ever so slightly. Now the husband’s grunt became a growl—low, guttural with a hint of ‘don’t fuck with me’. Simon’s stomach knotted even more than ever. His stomach always twisted over at the slightest hint of a disagreement, whether or not he was involved. Simon ran his hand over his mid-section trying to soothe away the pain, but it didn’t work. He reached over to his nightstand and grabbed a half-finished roll of antacid and slipped one into his mouth.
He padded to the living room, partly to get away from the impending battle royale brewing next door and also to turn on his Peek. A part of him wondered if watching so much could be a problem, like alcohol or drugs. But Peek addiction would be much more insidious, much more personal, much more…voyeuristic.
Simon sat down on the couch. On the coffee table in front of him was another opened roll of antacid tablets waiting for him. Half opened rolls lay all over the apartment and more at work. He ignored his stomach at first, but it still roiled and twisted. He grabbed the tablets feeling guilty and weak and methodically chewed one.
But those feelings of guilt and weakness, the pain slipped away when the machine hummed to life. He saw himself sitting on his couch, watching TV like he was sitting now, but a woman sat beside his doppelgänger, reading a book, her bare feet in his lap. Simon never saw antacids anywhere near his twin and the observation goaded him forward.
Eight hours separated this dimension and his twin’s and for the life of him, he could never get a good answer as to why.
His doppelgänger’s couch was almost the same, but it had a deeper, darker tone. The stone-colored vase was behind his twin as it was here but the similarities started to diverge. His twin had a huge house and was surrounded by all of the trappings of success to include beautiful women coming and going.
He massaged her foot as his attention was glued to the television. She had auburn hair hanging down to her shoulders and a small pouty mouth trying to hold back a mischievous smile. Her free foot was in his lap. A sudden exhalation of pleasure escaped from his doppelgänger. Her smile, which she tried to hide behind her book, grew wider with satisfaction. Simon turned off the Peek. He understood how TV fulfilled a voyeuristic hunger within us all, but the Peek took things to a whole different level.
He saw his face, but it was a thinner version. His doppelgänger had a cushy job Simon had aspired to in his younger days but gave up on. In effect, he watched Simon 2.0, Simon with a better smile, with girlfriends, a full hairline, and a goddamn life that didn’t kick him in the balls at every turn. 2.0 had such a good life Simon felt a sharp pang of jealousy every time he watched his Peek, but he couldn’t turn it off. He was hooked on seeing how his life could have turned out had he made better decisions.
He waited a few minutes before turning it on again and while sitting his mind wandered back to a week ago when he had met an old schoolmate, Johnny, after work. Simon had bought his Peek and it stayed unopened in his living room. Simon had told him about it…
“What?” Johnny yelled.
“Yeah, I bought it a couple of days back.”
“And you haven’t opened it yet?” Johnny’s voice raised another octave in incredulity.
“No, I’ve been busy.” Simon saw the glances the pair got from adjacent tables and he tried to influence his friend’s behavior by keeping calm, cool, and lowering his voice. Simon also hunched over in an attempt to make himself smaller and less noticeable.
“Well, let’s go! We’ll open it up!”
“No! No. I thought about returning it. It was a mistake to buy. I don’t see where another piece of technology will do me any good,” Simon said above a whisper. Simon thought the whole bar watched him. A substantial part of him wanted to find a quiet hole and crawl in. But a question rose up in Simon, gained a voice, and didn’t want to be denied.
“How does Peek work? he asked.
“Please, don’t give me a long technical explanation,” Simon said with uncharacteristic finality. He was usually a man who didn’t put up a fuss, didn’t interrupt, didn’t express opinions. He was a man who worked his nine to five, came home and watched television. His life had a routine and in the certainty of his routine, he had found a way to cope.
His life, his world resembled a drowning man treading water, swallowing lungful after lungful of water but getting enough—just barely enough—air to survive.
Lately, something hid below the water’s cold, tumultuous surface, prodding him, bumping into him, trying to grab hold to pull him down, but refusing to rise above the turbulence of the waves to be recognized. The high waves and the nudging only reinforced the fact the drowning man needed more than plain air to survive. He needed an unknown factor, a nebulous, and undefined part of himself hiding out of sight, to rise up into the light.
Johnny was surprised at his friend’s attitude, but he didn’t take it personally. They had known each other for years. Friends are allowed to act funny. Instead of arguing about the curt attitude, he tried to think of some way to explain how the Peek worked.
“Do you remember Silverberg’s class?” Johnny finally asked.
“Yeah, high school physics. He had a rhinestone coat and a ten-gallon hat. The only Jewish cowboy in Brooklyn,” Simon said.
“Yep, he’s the one. Do you remember the class with the bimetal rod?”
Simon’s brow furrowed and he shook his head no.
“Okay, well he had this rod with tin on one side and brass on the other. When he heated it up it curled because the two metals had two different expansion rates. It’s the same thing with universes. Numerous universes lay right next to ours, each one with different expansion rates. Some universes are contracting. Some are static. And others are expanding like ours but at different rates. The Peek lets us find the soft, thin spots between universes occurring because of those differences in growth. It lets us send the Peeker into these places. The world has hundreds of soft spots the Peek Corporation and the Pentagon keep track of.”
“If we have hundreds of these soft spots why do we only get 72 channels?”
“Ahhh, there are a lot of theories, conjecture, and conspiracy stories around this particular question. Some say these 72 universes are the ones closest to us in how we look and behave. Once you open your Peek, you’ll see the higher the channel the less like us they are. Those people in those upper channel universes have extra knuckles and different facial muscles.”
“Some people say the Pentagon watches these different universes because they get ideas for weapons. It’s a distinct possibility. But others say the laws of physics may be different. What may work in one universe may be complete and utter bullshit in ours.”
Johnny took a sip of beer. He said, “I’d give my eye teeth to see a universe beyond the 72. I’m sure there are places where the forbearers of man never left the water, or they stayed more reptilian than mammal, or where the roach is king.”
“One more question: How does the Peeker find my doppelgänger?”
“Another good question, where the Pentagon comes in. The Peeker is out of phase with these universes and so it’s invisible and untouchable. It’s sent from our Earth to the others to find your twin. During the heyday of terrorism, the Peekers original purpose was to track down terrorists hiding out in the caves of Pakistan. Everyone sloughs off skin cells as they walk through life. Well, the Peeker flies high above and samples the air, and captures dead skin cells from trillions of people. It can make quadrillions of calculations in seconds and it can home in on your location in minutes. Finding your twins’ precise location is a little harder but what it boils down to is following higher concentrations of your skin cells. The higher the concentration the Peeker finds in the air, the closer you are.
”The peek and everything associated with it changed the way we see the universe and ourselves,” Johnny said. “Because of the technology we have different theories on the beginnings of man.”
“Well, we now know we have more soft spots over Africa than anywhere else, specifically, where the beginnings of man crawled out of the primordial soup.”
“So, what’s the theory?”
“Some kind of cross-pollination could have occurred. By what mechanism no one knows. It’s only a theory, though.” He hesitated, looked away. Silence sat at the table alongside the pair but then he looked up and at Simon. He fixed Simon with an intense stare and said, “I think it’s God. I think God is the mechanism behind it all.”
Johnny suddenly stood up and drained the last bit of beer in his glass.
“C’mon, enough talking, let’s open it up,” Johnny said, as he started to walk away. Simon scrambled to try and keep up.
That night, 72 baseball-sized Peekers hovered about a foot off the ground in Simon’s apartment. They floated in the dining room, in the bedroom, in the bathroom. They filled his apartment.
The Peek had sampled Simon’s DNA. One by one the Peekers synced with the Peek, getting the electronic translation of his DNA. The Peekers laterally, diagonally, and vertically disappeared to soft spots all over the world.
“Now understand you can only view your twin and anyone in their immediate vicinity. When the Peek Corporation started up we experienced so many peeping tom cases it made you wonder about the number of perverts in the world,” he said. “Now I must bid thee, adieu,” Johnny said standing up from the couch.
“It’s getting kind of late and it will probably take a few hours before all your guys are found. And besides, I don’t want to see him doing anything that would change my opinion of you.”
Simon’s eyes rose in question.
Johnny sighed. “I once helped a woman set up her Peek. When a doppelgänger was found she was in the bathroom. The situation was embarrassing to her and to me. So now I have a policy.”
Simon tried to wait up for the Peek to fully sync but he became drowsy. Hypnos, the God of sleep, drew him in and whispered in his ear of beautiful, deep slumber. He listened. He fell into bed trying to dive to the deepest darkest parts of sleep, but he floundered through his dreams, trying to swim to shore, staying below what was necessary to be deemed sleep but never really reaching rest.
Disjointed images plagued him, dissolved, and left nothing in its wake but uneasiness. Then his alarm rang jarring him alert. Again, he lay in bed trying to ignore the sounds and sights around him.
Simon came out of his bedroom and saw the peek was fully synced but he couldn’t stop. He needed to get to work. He was going to be late. The thought occurred to him he could call out sick but the need for routine, the desire for certainty was important to him.
He walked out of his apartment, keys in hand, coffee in the other when he saw his neighbors—the ones who argued incessantly. They were silent now, but the tension came off them in waves. The husband walked in front while the wife trailed behind, tethered to one another by marriage but not emotionally together—emotionally at odds. Simon’s stomach tightened. He kept his distance.
Simon entered the subway walking under flickering lights, past spray-painted graffiti walls and bits of refuse around overflowing garbage cans.
While waiting on the train he watched a mouse and a rat fight, on the tracks, over a morsel of food. At one point, the rat stopped the tug of war and attacked the mouse. Simon watched fascinated. He was so engrossed at the sight when the train pulled into the station and blocked his view of the rat dragging the carcass of the mouse into a dark hole, he woke as if he had been in a trance. Something about the sight sent a shiver down his spine. But the shiver wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
Simon fought the jostling masses for a place on the train, but it was already crowded, and he had to hold onto a pole. He mentally settled back and tried to let the sway of the train lull and soothe his stomach. Then an old homeless man entered the car while the train was moving. His hair was a matted mess. His beard was dotted with unidentifiable matter. He shuffled rather than walked, never really lifting his feet from the floor. When the door of the car opened, the air caught the backdraft of his unwashed body, the cheap wine he spilled on himself, the vomit accompanying it, and the urine staining his pants. The smell filled the tight space.
The old bearded man, muttering to himself, walked the length of the car, his feet making a kind of skiff skiff skiff sound as he moved forward. He parted the masses like they were the Red Sea and he was Moses. Simon felt a stab of pain tighten his stomach. He was part of the sea.
He reached into his pocket for an antacid.
When Simon arrived at work his boss was waiting for him by his desk. Simon
unshouldered his canvas bag, averted looking at his boss, Mr. Slade, sat down, and rolled his chair into his desk.
“You’re late…again,” Slade said.
Slade was a big man who used his size to intimidate, to impose his will, to make people jump. A part of Slade thought his shadow—the most inconsequential portion of himself—was enough to strike fear in his employees. This mouse sitting in front of him was hardly worth the effort.
“Y-yes I know. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, I know you’re sorry. I’m sorry too—sorry I ever hired you.”
Simon’s hand went to his stomach. Mr. Slade’s hand extended giving him something. A peace offering? More work? Then Simon saw it—an open roll of antacids. Simon looked up into Slade’s face and saw a slight curl of his upper lip. The look was of disdain, of disgust.
Simon silently took the roll and placed it on his desk. He turned back to his work and ignored his boss until he left several seconds later.
When Simon was alone (alone as he could be, at his desk, in his cubicle) he stopped working, disregarding the mounds of paperwork, the data-pads around him, the overflowing in-box and stared at the half unwrapped roll of antacid, his sign of weakness, his sickliness.
He threw the roll into the garbage bin, but it was only a symbolic gesture designed to soothe the part of him wanting rebellion, the part desiring strength. A small mutinous voice piped up: More are lying around, it said. Many more. He tried to squelch the voice as much as he could, but truth has resilience.
Simon sat back and thought about his boss, his job, and whether he should leave it and try something else. His life felt as though he were living not the death of a thousand cuts but the death of a thousand slights, each slight cutting deeper and darker than the last until blood, bone, and soul was injured.
He tried to focus on why he should stay at this particular place of employment he kept seeing the extended hand with the opened roll of antacids. Then another image cut across his mind’s eye like a knife cutting through bone and tendon. He saw the rat dragging the mouse carcass into its hole.
His forehead pulled down in bewilderment. Simon stopped all thoughts on leaving. He got to work.
When Simon entered his apartment, he closed the door behind him and sank against the wall, trying to gather the strength to move to his couch. His head ached and his stomach churned in pain. But then the Peek caught his eye and his tiredness and pain departed, easily moved aside by his curiosity.
The 72 lights in front of the console informed him the Peekers had done their jobs. One light blinked off and on, though.
The first channel Simon saw surprised him. His hands started to shake. A shiver went down his spine and amplified the tremor in his hand. But the manicured lawn and flowerbed around the facility couldn’t change what the building was: A mental institution–the same institution a few miles from where he lived.
The Peeker passed through the walls of the building, stopped, sampled the air again, and started to move sideways now. When it finally homed in on him, Simon saw himself—his twin—confined to a padded room in a straitjacket. His double’s hair was long, matted, and dirty. His eyes were wide saucers of a haloperidol stupor complete with dark half-moons beneath them. His pallor was pale. But even with the drugs masking and tamping down on his behavior it was easy to see his doppelgänger was mad—stark raving mad.
Simon licked his lips. He swallowed and found his throat was dry. A part of him acknowledged long ago how mentally tenuous he was, but to see it… His hands, still shaking, turned the channel, and then he saw Simon 2.0. And in the moment Simon understood how the Peek could be so addictive. This version of Simon was smiling broadly while walking down the street arm in arm with a beautiful blond woman.
For the next few days, Simon compulsively watched his twin moving through his world, trying to glean from Simon 2.0 how he dealt with everyday life.
Then he saw it. He saw how his twin coped with the angst, the anger, the fear of insects, of closed-in places, of fog, the general fear of everything. Simon saw and understood. The experience was like having a light shined down on him from on high, clearing away the shadows making room for truth. He had an epiphany. He set the façade aside to let reality step forth.
A hunger grew in him to be like his twin, mushrooming steadily, drowning out all seditious voices, all doubt, all fear.
He had always wanted the ability to cope with all of his insecurities, all of his idiosyncrasies, all of those things set him apart from everyone else. And here it was served up to him. Here was a way to release the building anger within him.
For the first time in a long time, Simon felt a little bit of hope of freedom for the drowning man within him.
Syncing up had taken a few hours to figure out. He wanted to rewind the peek so it synced up with his universe, so as things happened in the other universe it almost mirrored what happened in Simon’s. The difference of several hours between universes gave him some leeway in making sure everything was perfect.
Waiting for her was agony. Glancing at his wall clock and then peering at his watch as the seconds ticked off made time move at a glacial pace. But finally, the doorbell rang, and Simon felt excitement course through his body, electrifying him, pushing him forward.
Simon ran for the door, opened it, and beheld Rachel. She was beautiful. Her chestnut-colored hair fell down around her shoulders. Her smile was wide and perfect. She was someone Simon never hoped to even have a conversation with let alone begin this different kind of life. He felt giddy with all of the possibilities.
A part of him wanted to be shy, timid, to blush and avert his gaze but he stepped on the feeling, ground it into dust, and took the next step.
“Please, come in,” he said. He bowed very deeply, with a flourish and pointed the way into the living room.
He had watched his twin and how he coped with all of his insecurities and mimicked him. He was nervous though. His heart raced in his chest because he was in unfamiliar territory, dealing with unfamiliar emotions, interacting with a person he didn’t know. His doubts raised their collective heads again. Again, he stepped on them. He had to move forward. The alternative would be to accept himself as he was, to accept his fear, his anger at the world, and swallow it like it was a knot of jagged steel wool.
He led her over to the couch and sat her down.
“Ohhh, you have it synced up with us!” she said.
“Yes. Yes. The wine is on the table. Pour yourself a drink while I get the cheese and crackers.” He returned with the food on a small plate along with a knife to cut. She watched the peek enthralled by her twin. He placed the plate beside her on the couch. His doppelgänger did the same. She turned around from her seat and smiled at him, but he motioned her attention back to the screen.
“Did you watch today?” he asked, knowing the answer.
“No, I had to get my hair done.”
“Well, this next bit should surprise you then.”
As she sat watching Simon 2.0 standing behind her twin, she saw him suddenly reach out and grasp the small knife he brought into the living room. They both watched Simon 2.0 grab her by her hair. Rachel 2.0 let out a small yelp of pain and surprise, but she was silenced. Simon 2.0 cut her throat with the paring knife. Blood spewed.
The Rachel sitting on his couch let out a small cry of disbelief. The glass of wine slipped from her hand and landed on the floor making a small butterfly stain on the carpet. All color left her. Her hands shook.
What Simon had learned, from watching his twin, was the way he dealt with the anger, the angst, the fear was to give it voice, to give it life and direction. Simon 2.0 found his voice in violence. Simon’s double was a serial killer.
Rachel turned and looked up at him.
Inside Simon, the turbulent waters calmed, and the storm clouds dispersed. The sun emerged. The drowning man majestically rose from the water, stepped on dry land, and took an unfettered breath in the light. The voices of dissension, of anger, and sedition were all at once silent—and united. For the first time in years his stomach was painless and calm.
Simon looked down at her and smiled.