Photo by Gabe

Visualizing Reality

by T. A. LaPar

Velvety green tendrils of grass, swaying in the wind. Wisps of clouds scattered across the cerulean sky. Cool drops of dew splashing against my ankles.

A woman. Warmth. Love. Just out of reach.

The back of my neck. Itching. Burning.

A sudden change—the ground shifting beneath my feet, catapulting up, up, up.

Clawing at my neck. Searing. An inferno.

Slipping backward, falling, tumbling.

The woman, her hand outstretched. Too late. Too far. Gone.

I yell out her name.


“Richie? Richie, wake up!”

My eyes snapped open. I looked toward infinity. At the edge of infinity, green and blue hues rippled.

Nancy touched me, and it all disappeared.

“What?” I grumbled, my voice hoarse.

She snatched back her hand. “You were yelling my name.”

I didn’t move. I held my sightless stare, yearning to see the colors again. They didn’t come back.

Nancy sighed, her breath hot against my shoulder, and got out of bed. After quite a bit of morning routine, a cacophony of clinks and clanks and scuffles, Nancy returned and took my hands.

I traced the contours of her features. The small slope of her nose. Her bristly, manicured eyebrows. The subtle ridge of an old scar below her left eye—a permanent reminder of a childhood fall off a slide. Her soft lips, turned up into a slight smile. A bit of lipstick peeled off onto my thumb like powder.

“You look beautiful today, Nancy.”

Her face warmed as she laughed. “I better, I have rich investors to impress.” She brushed the tip of my thumb with her lips before moving from my reach.

“Investors?” My stomach lurched as I remembered the feeling of falling backward.

“I have that big meeting today, remember? My Visualizr idea?”

I nodded. Right. San Francisco. I turned away from her, hoping she wouldn’t notice my frown. A sudden onslaught of vertigo overwhelmed me. Internally, I was tumbling, unstoppable. I scratched at the back of my neck, fingernails scraping against the metal outline of my port.

I could sense Nancy standing by the bed, contemplating. “Do you need anything before I’m off?” she finally asked.

“No.” This was our routine—an offer of support, followed by a statement of independence.

I turned back toward her as the air around me warmed. Her lips brushed against mine. I wrinkled my nose as a lock of her hair slid across my face. “Alright, then. I’ll be off. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” I managed a smile.

She lingered by me for a moment, the familiar floral scent of her perfume almost lulling me back to sleep. Lilacs. Then she left, the clicks and clacks of her heels fading as she walked. A hiss and click of the door. Silence.

Though, not really. There was no such thing as true silence.

From my bed, I lay in stillness, in the midst of it all, forty floors up from the streets of New York City. I could hear the marching rhythm of the clock from the kitchen, marking the steady beat of time. The excited whir of Athena, our AI unit, waiting to be called upon. Footsteps from the floor above, pacing back and forth. A conversation from a few floors below, sprinkled with laughter, the words otherwise blurred on the wind.

People often complain they have nothing to do. They’re mistaken. Just close your eyes and listen to the machinations of the world around you. I could do it for days.

Sometimes I do.

I spent some time trying to recall my dream. The details felt distant and foreign, trapped in some unreachable reality. All that was left was the sensation of falling.

I scratched at my port again.

Pushing the covers off my legs and wrapping my hands around my bedpost, I pulled myself up with a grunt. I reached out for my usual spot next to the bed, but nothing was there.

“Athena, where’s my chair?”

An airy voice breathed into existence. “It’s by the foot of your bed, Richard.” The voice was pleasantly British.

I braced my hands against the mattress and maneuvered toward the end of the bed. I stretched forward until I found the sturdy frame of my wheelchair. Gripping my fingers around the two armrests, I pulled myself forward and off the bed. My feet hit the floor with a muted thud. Pivoting over my legs and suspended by my arms, I rotated myself and lowered into the chair.

I took a second to catch my breath. It wasn’t the transfer they taught me in the hospital, but I liked using my arms. If only for a moment, I felt strong. My gasps were punctuated by the sharp, nutty aroma of coffee and the smell of bacon wafting through the floorboards.

I turned left, pushed forward two and a half wheel rotations, turned right, continued forward five wheel rotations, and hit a slight decline into the bathroom. I was a cartographer in my own home, constantly mapping the different routes I could take.

My hands settled on the cold, steel bars surrounding the toilet. I gritted my teeth as I spun myself around again and took a seat. I was lucky, they told me, that I could do this instead of routinely pissing myself. The doctors liked to use this word. ‘You’re one lucky guy!’, they said when I woke from my coma. When I regained control of my hands. When I could finally pull myself out of bed and into my chair.

‘Lucky’ was an interesting word for it.

It had only been a week since Dr. Yang told me we were out of options. Another promising lead turned into a dead end. Another dagger in the stubborn pinwheel of hope. But before she let me down, she made sure to call me lucky, too.

I took a deep breath and pushed myself back into the bedroom to a recliner that sat by the window. Nancy’s favorite spot. According to her, the setting sun sent soft rays of amber light dancing across the rippling water of the Hudson.

My fingers glided along the smooth, chalky khaki fabric of an outfit laid out on the chair. I traced the sharp angles of the collar. This was Nancy’s favorite shirt of mine. Dark blue. It brought out my eyes, apparently. At least they were still good for something.

As I began the fun process of dressing myself, my headrest rattled, like a ghost was trapped inside.

“Athena, who’s calling?”


“Huh.” My finger hovered over a button on the inside of my right armrest. In my mind, the vibrant green grass of Ireland rustled in the wind, summoned by Curtis’ name. Our families had gone on a trip to Ireland when we were kids. It was one of my last sighted memories. After the accident, our friendship was my one point of stability during years of uncertainty. It had been two long decades since he first read me a story, picked me up off the ground, steered me through crowded subway tunnels to bring me to school. Over the past few years, though, he had been remarkably absent.

As I pushed the button, I found myself wondering what he wanted from me.

“Rich! Glad I caught you, boss.” Curtis’ deep, raspy voice filtered through speakers set up around the apartment. I had almost forgotten how it sounded.

“Not very hard to do, I don’t go many places.” I bit my lip as I yanked my pants up to my waist.

His hoarse guffaw echoed throughout the room. “Someone’s in a good mood today.”

“Well, it’s not every day I get to hear from my best friend. Actually, it’s been about two years, on the dot.” I grabbed my right foot, pulled my leg toward my chest, and forced on a shoe.

“Two years? On the dot?” Curtis paused. “Shit, is it your birthday?”

I almost threw my second shoe across the apartment. The only thing that stopped me was the urn holding Nancy’s mother somewhere in that direction. “My birthday was two days ago. You could at least pretend that’s why you called.”

“This is perfect—I’ve called because I’ve got something for your birthday, something incredible! Think of it as a belated present.” Curtis chuckled. “Hoo boy, just wait until you see what I’ve—”

“’Wait until I see’? Come on, Curtis, you’re better than that.” I clawed backward with my unsheathed arm searching for the elusive second sleeve of my shirt.

He lowered his voice. “No, I mean it. You’ll see it. Or with it, rather. You know what we’ve been working on. Forget about Visualizr, this is the real deal, I’m as serious as a fox in a chicken coop.”

“That doesn’t sound very serious.” I crammed a stubborn button into its respective hole. “Actually, I don’t know what you’ve been working on. You’ve only told me your company is called ‘NVision’, which has always felt like a veiled insult in my direction.”

“A fox in a chicken coop would be seriously excited. Which you should be, too.” Curtis cleared his throat. “NVision…yeah, the codename’s definitely legacy. Back when we started this all it was only visual, but it grew into something more. Just think of it like you’re envisioning a whole new reality. Which you will be, Rich! This is gonna change your life, I mean it!”

I took a deep breath, reeling from the onslaught of Curtis’ corporate enthusiasm, and recentered myself. “Curtis, the last time we had a conversation like this I ended up with a port in the back of my neck. I don’t want to go down that road again.” I tried and failed to resist scratching at its smooth, metallic outline as I flattened the back of my collar.

“Come on, buddy! That was a decade ago, what I’m talking about is the future. This is different. Monumentally different.”

I sighed as I tugged on my collar and the bottom of my shirt to make sure it wasn’t misaligned. Curtis obviously believed in this new tech. It didn’t mean I had to. Not this time. “Are you going to keep bothering me about this?”

“Every day, Rich.”

“I’m tempted to go along with that, at least you’d call me more often.”

“How about this? I’ll bring over what I’ve got to your place. An in-person demonstration.”

I tapped my fingers along my armrest. My apprehension fell away at the prospect of visiting with my friend again. “Promise me I won’t have to drill any more holes into my head.”

“No more holes, scout’s honor. Get ready for something special, Rich! I’ll swing by your place this afternoon.”

I let the silence sit as I wheeled around the room, feeling around for my jacket. “Fine. I’ll hear you out. But bring me a nice bottle of wine, too. And some chocolate from that Belgian place.”

Curtis laughed. “You’re not a cheap date.”

“I am when you average it out over two years.”

“Fair enough! I can respect a little hardball. It’s a deal.”

My searching fingers found the coarse wool threads of my blazer as the call ended. Perfect for the cool, autumn morning. Something crinkled against my chest as I swung the jacket over my shoulders. I grimaced as my fingers wrapped around a paper receipt in the blazer’s inner breast pocket—the engagement ring. I clenched my hand into a fist, balling up the receipt. The ridges of crumpled paper felt like sharp peaks of mountainous hills. I left the apartment scratching at the back of my neck.

I spent the morning doing the things I loved around my part of town. I grabbed food at Dave’s Dogs and listened to Dave’s soothing rants, mesmerized as always by his city drawl. He asked me about my birthday and comped me my meal, despite my protests. I rested in the park and immersed myself in the sounds of children playing, doves singing, and couples laughing. I stopped at my favorite wine store, where the owner greeted me outside and told me about the new wines they’d discovered and stocked. Layla had been meeting me for years at the foot of the stairs leading into her store. I never had to ask, she did it unprompted. All the while, the pulses of the city’s heartbeat were my only compass. Usually, turning off Athena and making these stops was calming, freeing, and rejuvenating.

Instead, each turn I was afraid to find my familiar, flat city streets morphing into insurmountable hills. That I’d find myself tumbling backward, with no one there to stop me. My port wouldn’t stop itching. I scratched until my skin burned, puffy and inflamed.

When I returned to my apartment, I was sweating and out of breath, on the verge of a panic attack. I scrambled onto my bed and wrapped myself in the warm comfort of thick blankets. I tried hard to avoid scratching my neck, but eventually gave in. My fingers grazed the cool metal of the port. A gateway to my spinal cord, and therefore my brain. Ten years ago, I got a port so I could ‘see again’, at least from someone else’s eyes. It didn’t work, of course.

Since then, I’d tried to avoid Visualizr, but two nights ago, that became impossible.

Nancy had taken me to my favorite restaurant for my birthday, a place in the village called Les Yeux, le Nez.

The clatter of metal on porcelain. The low rumble of conversations melded together into a background din of chatter. The competing aromas of hot steaks, duck, cheese, and red wine.

The place rocked.

Nancy liked the atmosphere (according to her, the key was real candles). I liked that it wasn’t too loud. The welcome bubbly was a nice touch for both of us. With a cool press of glass against my lips, the weight of the world melted away as champagne bubbles popped against my tongue. As I held her hand in mine across the table, sliding my fingers along her subtle callouses—a symptom of an off-and-on relationship with a guitar—I realized why I loved it here. The spot was a perfect combination of the senses. A culinary reflection of our relationship.

Most importantly, they didn’t have a menu. Asking for menus in braille was a fool’s errand. If they didn’t have one, the question legally forced the server to read the menu out loud…I’d rather not.

Instead, there was a prix fixe menu. Three courses, picked daily by the head chef. Yes, it was posh, but sometimes feeling normal was more expensive.

“So. Thirty-five.” Nancy clinked her champagne flute against mine. “Next time someone asks you’ll have to say mid-thirties. How does it feel, old man?”

I laughed, taking another sip of champagne. “You’re jealous. I’ve reached a new level of maturity and grace. One that a kid like you could never hope to achieve.”

Nancy snorted. “Someone, please, send help! I’m trapped in my early thirties and can still eat cheese without regretting it for the next two days.”

Plates clinked onto the table. “Welcome, Monsieur et Mademoiselle. First course, a wild arugula salad with pine nuts, strawberries, burrata, and our house lemon vinaigrette. Enjoy.”

I pulled a small pill bottle out of my pocket. “Thanks for reminding me, I almost forgot to take my lactase.”

“Medicine, the great equalizer.”

“Sort of,” I pointed out.

Nancy sighed. “Sort of. I know the last few doctors haven’t worked out, but we’ll keep looking.”

Heat swelled behind my eyes as tears threatened to betray my doubt. “The thought of seeing you right now…I can’t put into words what that would mean to me.”

Her fingers squeezed mine as I reached for my drink. “I can tell you one thing for free.”

“And what is that?”

“I look spicy tonight. I even straightened my hair.”

I laughed, the warmth of the alcohol settling over me like a buzzing blanket, chasing away my anxiety. As I put my bottle of lactase away, my hand brushed against the ring receipt in my pocket. In a few weeks, that would be replaced by a box. Perhaps we’d be at this very table. My heart thrummed against the inside of my blazer.

“Remember our first date, Richie?”

I smiled. “I’ll never forget it.”

“I was late.”

“Which you will never forget, it seems.” I interlaced my fingers with hers across the table. My whole body relaxed as I reveled in her nearness.

Nancy laughed. “To this day, I still haven’t found that straightener. Amara still says I owe her one.” As the familiar cadences of a story much-reminisced washed over me, my mind began to wander. I thought back through the previous few weeks. Nancy had started to linger in the bathroom after her morning shower. Later, as she’d hug me goodbye, I’d feel the warmth on the back of her neck as I traced the outline of her port with my fingertips. She was using Visualizr but didn’t want me to know. It wasn’t like her to hide something from me, and I was worried.

I finished the last of my salad and washed it down with a generous gulp of champagne as she reached the end of the story.

“Amara told me I was nuts because you wouldn’t be able to see whether I used her straightener. But when you kissed me that night, you ran your fingers through my hair, and that would have been a mess if I hadn’t—”

“Hey, Nancy?” I took a deep breath.

“I know, I know. You swear our first kiss was actually—”

“Does it bother you that I can’t use Visualizr?” I asked, letting go of her hand.

She coughed. “What? No, not at all. Of course not! Why would you think that?”

I shrugged. “It bothers me a little bit, to be honest.”

“I… you’ve never said that before,” Nancy said softly. “What’s on your mind? It’s not like you to bring up Visualizr.”

“I’ve never asked, but I assume you like it. I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide in the bathroom when you want to use it. And if it’s something that’s important to you, I wish I could experience it, too.”

In the moment of silence that followed, I regretted bringing it up. I wanted to tell her to forget I had noticed anything. Something urgent and ominous awoke within me, something that had been lying dormant for years. Fear. The fear that the world I inhabited and the one Nancy did were not and could not be the same.

I almost cried with relief as she let out a deep breath and broke me out of the thought spiral. “God, why did I think you wouldn’t notice? Most of it is a waste of time, you know. Hours and hours living other people’s lives…it’s not real. But I’m not actually using it, per se.”

Nancy paused as our plates were cleared and replaced. I could smell the smoky aroma of the best steak in the city before it was announced. It should have made me hungry, but instead the interruption gave space for that fear to return, filling my stomach with nauseating dread. “Filet mignon, with a black peppercorn jus, roasted asparagus on the side, paired with a fantastic Bourgogne wine. One of my personal favorites, from Le Domaine Maçon-Ferrés. Bon appétit.”

The steak sat in front of me, teasing me with mouth-watering potential while my stomach protested, crying out for a resolution before I took a bite.

“What are you doing on Visualizr, then?” I asked.

“I’ve been doing research.”


Nancy tapped the table. “About two months ago, I had an idea. We should use Visualizr in hospitals. Or, really, for hospitals. Our whole thing is leveraging new technology in medicine, trying to drag hospitals into the second half of the century. Why not use Visualizr? You could prep for neurosurgery, maybe one that’s only been done a handful of times. What better preparation is there than watching the entire thing as a Memory? We could create a whole set of training media for surgeons. And, it’s even better than being in the room. They’re seeing it through the eyes of the surgeon. They can experience mistakes and complications, without the panic and trauma of it actually happening to someone in front of them. I brought it up as an offhand comment to my boss, and she liked the idea. She challenged me to put together a pitch. Hence the research, I guess.”

I tugged on one of my shirt cuffs and cleared my throat. “That sounds like a fantastic idea, but why didn’t you feel like you could share it with me?”

She shifted in her seat. “It sounds silly now, but I was worried that you wouldn’t…I don’t know, be as excited about it.”

My face reddened. “Because it has to do with Visualizr?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s kind of it.”

I took a bite of food, mostly to give myself time to think. The steak was marvelous, though my stomach still threatened to revolt. I forced it down with a painful swallow. “Nancy, I hope you know my disability should never, ever make you feel—”

“Oh no, see, this is what I was afraid of.” She took a bite, the metal of her fork striking against the plate, ringing out a dissonant chime. “I honestly thought this wasn’t going to amount to anything. Bringing it up to you would have made it a real, important thing. The truth is, I cared about it, and that made me a little scared.”

I nodded, my face blushing even further. I had made it about myself. “I’m sorry, Nancy. I understand now.” I paused. “You mentioned you didn’t think it would amount to anything. Does that mean it has?”

“My pitch was last week. They asked a lot of questions, and my boss complimented me on the presentation afterward, but I figured that would be the last of it. I had almost stopped thinking about it, to be honest, when my boss called me for an impromptu meeting this morning. Her boss was there as well. They want to pursue the project, and they want me to lead it.”

I grinned. “Nancy, that’s amazing! I knew it was only a matter of time before…” I trailed off as I noticed the clatter of Nancy’s fingernails tapping against her fork. “Is there something else, though?”

“I wasn’t sure whether to bring it up tonight. But, it also didn’t feel right not bringing this up to you as soon as I could.”

My stomach was no longer protesting; it was being assailed. Something began to wrap around it, constricting, threatening the warm bundle of delicious French cuisine. I waited for Nancy, noticing that, after a moment, she placed her glass of wine back onto the table.

“They’ve already reached out to a potential partner hospital. UCSF Medical Center, in San Francisco.”

San Francisco. The first words that came to mind were hills and earthquakes. They weren’t exactly the geological features I was most suited for. I took a drink of wine in an attempt to wash away the visions of hills shooting up into the sky. Me, at the bottom. An impossible obstacle. “And they want you there?”

Nancy let out a long breath. “Yeah. We have an office downtown; I think I’ve mentioned it before. They want to build this team there, and they’d expect me to be communicating in person with the doctors at UCSF.”

The snake around my stomach pulled tight. I couldn’t imagine leaving this city. I knew it by its pulses and sounds. I could get around on my own without anyone’s help. I didn’t have many friends, but they were all here. My body felt weighed down, like it was being pulled toward the table. My arm ached—I had been holding a bite of food on my fork for some time. I placed it down. The clink of the fork against porcelain tolled like a clock tower bell.

The ring receipt in my pocket was as heavy as a brick.

“I know what this sounds like, but I would never make a decision without you. It’s not even set in stone—we need investors first. We’re meeting with a few on Thursday. If we get the funding, they’ve said I could work remotely for a few months, which gives us plenty of time to figure this out.”

I felt out of breath. “Nancy, I…” I trailed off, not knowing where the sentence was going in the first place. What could I say? I didn’t even know what I was feeling.

Nancy’s hand settled over mine, a gentle pressure against my fingers. “Let’s not worry about this right now. We can talk about it later. It’s your birthday, and we should be present in that. You’ve barely touched your food, and I know how much you like their filet.”

But I couldn’t focus on the meal.

I jerked awake as my front door clicked open. The back of my neck burned; I had been scratching it in my sleep. “Nancy?”

“Nope. It’s me! I come bearing the gifts I was ordered to bring.” A bag rustled as Curtis placed it on the kitchen counter.

“Jesus, don’t you know how to knock? How’d you even get in?”

“Nancy gave me a spare key a long time back. Just in case something happened.”

“Why would she…” I sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Although, you could still buzz up like a normal person.” I started to wrap my arms around my bedpost.

“I gotcha, don’t fret.”

Before I could protest, strong arms swept me from the bed, carrying me in one fluid motion to my chair. It was a routine we’d played out a hundred times, though it had been years.

“It’s good to see you, Rich. You look great.”

“I’d rather you didn’t pick me up like that anymore. I can manage myself.”

“Sorry my friend, I was just trying to help.”

“Friends should probably visit more than every two years. We live in the same goddamn city, Curtis.”

Curtis sighed. “I hear you, pal. And I know. I feel like we’re getting off on the wrong foot. Why don’t I show you what I’ve been working on?”

“I’m all for getting the business side of your visit out of the way.”

“Alright! Da, da na na!” Curtis sang as he popped open the latch of a briefcase. “I’ve brought you one of our VR machines. Virtual Reality! The real deal, not like that Visualizr shit.”

“Sure. I’ll pretend I’m not incredibly skeptical. How does it work?”

“You just plug it into your port, and then boom! VR.”

I massaged my forehead with the palm of my hand. “That’s not going to do anything for me. My port doesn’t work. My optic nerve pathway is broken, you know this. I thought you were bringing something else.”

“This is different, remember?”

I folded my arms, ready for this part of Curtis’ visit to end.

“Okay okay, you need some convincing, I get it. Listen to this—a woman came in a few weeks ago, she couldn’t see a damn thing. I was pretty unsure myself, knowing what you’ve been through. Rich, it worked perfectly. She had her assistant hand us a blank check as soon as we disconnected her. A check! I didn’t think those even existed anymore.” He laughed. “Look, I know this is special. The tech doesn’t work like Visualizr. It broadcasts straight to your brain, like a dream. It worked for her, and it’ll work for you. I thought of you right away, and I’ve been finagling getting you one of these ever since.”

Like a dream. My heart skipped a beat. “I don’t…”

“Come on, just try it. What’s the worst that happens? It doesn’t work? Then I’ll pack it up and never bother you with it again.”

I took a moment to mull it over. In spite of myself, I began to feel the restlessness of anticipation. “Fine. Let’s just get this over with.”

“Now that’s the spirit!” Curtis hummed to himself as his calloused fingers fumbled at the back of my neck. It took all my effort to resist scratching at it.

“Hoo boy, you’re looking a little red and puffy back here. Have you gotten this checked out?”

“It’s nothing. It just flares up sometimes. How’s Veronica, by the way?” I asked, desperate to distract myself from my irritated skin.

Curtis stopped moving his hands and took a deep breath. “We’re separated.”

“Shit, Curtis…I’m sorry.” We were both silent for a moment. “Was this all worth it?”

“Trust me, old friend. This is the future.” A slight pinch, a loud hum, and then nothing. True silence.

I lay on the ground, my eyes wrenched shut. Cool, loose dirt fell along the ridges of my feet as I wiggled my left big toe, then my right. I pushed off the ground with my arms and drove up through my hips, a series of motions summoned from deep within my subconscious.

Just like that, I was standing.

My face was warm with the heat of the sun. The breeze wafted through my hair, tickling my forehead. But I kept my eyes closed. I thought through thousands of mornings, opening my eyes to nothing but my eternal darkness. Every muscle in my body tightened.

I let my eyes open a crack.


A searing, hot whiteness burst into my vision, fading gently to color. Luscious greens tumbled away into the distance, dropping sharply as cliffs met the thrashing blues of the ocean below.

Damn it. He took me to Ireland.

The ocean was a deep and vibrant blue, limited only by the horizon. Flashes of sunlight speckled the waves as they crashed against the cliffs. I thought of my dreams, of the swirling colors I conjured with my sleeping mind. That was nothing compared to this.

And I was ravenous for it.

The sound of the waves rolling in from the distance, a gust of wind that brought the smell of salt to my nose, and the colors, oh the colors!

This is what it meant to be alive.

After a few steps, I was running, for the first time in twenty years. Everything was just as I remembered it, and more. I ran until I couldn’t. I dangled my legs off the cliffs over the sparkling blue water as I pulled in gasps of salt air.

But then, the sun went out.

“No!” I jumped to my feet, scrambling away from the cliff’s edge. I stumbled as I tripped on rocks now obfuscated by darkness. I fell to my knees, clawing at the dirt, dragging myself—

“Rich, buddy, I’m disconnecting ya, stop squirming!”

“No! You can’t—”

“Rich! It’s over.”

I let out an exhausted laugh. “What a tease.”

“You’d spend all day in there if I let you.” As Curtis finished disconnecting me, the last faint remnants of Irish cliffs disappeared into memory.

“Of course I would. The sounds, the smells, the feel of the dirt…I could see! Curtis, I could see everything! For Christ’s sake I could see my own hands. How does that even work?”

“So, you liked it?”

“Ireland. You bastard.”

Curtis chuckled. “You saying you want one?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“What if I told you you could have this one?”

“Sure, I love free things.”

Curtis latched his briefcase. “Not exactly free. Though I can get you a discount.”

I sighed. There was always a catch. “How much?”

“A few thousand is all.”

“Curtis, how many thousands?”

He took a moment before answering. “A bit under fifteen.”

“You have to be shitting me, fifteen thousand dollars?”

Curtis clapped me on the shoulder. “Barely covers the price of parts. Do you know much computation goes into what you just experienced? I know you’ve got some spare change lying around. Your karma cash, that’s what you call it, right?”

“Only I can call it that. And there are other things I’ve been saving that money for,” I said between gritted teeth.

“Like what?”

“Like a surgery or two.” I didn’t mention the wedding. The balled-up receipt was still in my pocket, its jagged edges like thorns against my chest.

Curtis whistled. “Well shit, that would be worth it.”

I nodded, the beat of silence punctuated by my own doubt.

“Look, Rich, I’m sorry. I’m already taking money out of my bank account to cover a piece. I wish I could do more, and I’m sad I can’t. You deserve this more than anyone I know. But they’re saying our pal Uncle Sam is coming down hard on us with an executive order any day now. I don’t think we’re going to be able to hand out many more of these, at least not for a while. The money I’ve got is going to have to last me until then.”

“How long?”

“Who knows. There are a lot of hoops and hurdles, legal battles, all that fun stuff. You know this wasn’t what the ports were designed for. Shit, it took them twenty years to get self-driving cars into Manhattan…it’s gonna be a long time, buddy.”

The back of my neck howled with a searing, yearning intensity. The feeling was almost intolerable alongside the burning sensation of uncertainty and sudden urgency.

“Sleep on it. If you decide you want it tomorrow, give me a call. You have my number.” Curtis patted me on the back. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a prick. I’ll swing by more often, I promise.”

I shook my head. “Wait, you’re not getting off so easily.” I pointed in the direction of the kitchen. “Grab that bottle of wine and have a drink with me.”

Curtis let out a long, whistling breath. He tapped on his watch. “I suppose the rest of my day is pretty free. For once.”

“If you’re nice I’ll let you have a chocolate too.”

“Those did look pretty good…” Curtis stepped into the kitchen and returned with a wine glass that he slid into my hand.

I held it up. “To calling me more often.”

Curtis laughed. “Yes, boss. I hear ya.” He clinked his glass against mine.

We chatted for a while, catching up on two years of memories, before we got to the question I wanted to ask. “Veronica…how’d it happen?”

Curtis tapped his fingernails along the stem of his glass. “When NVision ramped up, we started fighting. A lot. Yelling matches. We had never yelled at each other before then.” Curtis’ voice hovered just over a whisper. “She needed something I couldn’t give her. Time. We both knew the work was something I needed, and in the end, she didn’t want to hold me back. I don’t fault her.” He took a drink. “But hell, do I miss her.”

I took a long drink as well, coaxing the last few drops of wine onto the tip of my tongue. I raised my glass in the air toward Curtis. “To not holding anyone back.”

Nancy was quiet as she watched the sunset over the Hudson River that evening. I wheeled up beside her. “I’ve heard California is beautiful, too.”

“Oh Richie. We don’t have to talk about that right now.”

I reached for her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Her hand covered mine, our fingers interlacing. “No, I want to. How did the meeting go?”

“It…it went well. They’re interested.”

“That’s great, Nancy. That’s really great.” I took a deep breath. The scent of lilacs hit me like a punch to the gut. Her nearness, for the first time since I had met her, felt wrong. My voice nearly caught. “I think you should go. Without me.” Saying the words was like ripping a bandage off only to realize the wound underneath was far from healed.

“What? What are you talking about?”

I kept going. I needed her to understand. “I want you to chase your dreams, no matter where they take you.” I gestured out the window. West. Toward the setting sun. Toward California. “One day, you’re going to change the world. And maybe you’ll watch the sunset with someone who can see it too.” My bottom lip quivered. “I don’t want to be the reason you don’t.”

Nancy pulled me into an embrace. “Richie, I don’t even want to think about not having you there with me. We’ll figure this out. I don’t need you to see, or to walk. I hope you know that. I love you just the way you are.”

I laid my head on her shoulder as she stroked my hair. I didn’t say anything, worried that if I opened my mouth, I’d erupt into sobs. San Francisco. When I tried to envision it, there was only darkness. Hills of shadow that extended into infinity. I was always falling, falling into crushing, suffocating darkness.

Nancy straightened, cupping my head in her hands. “Okay, I have an idea,” she said, kissing me. “When you’re ready, all you have to do is listen.”

I focused on the warmth of her body next to mine, the smell of her hair, the softness of her lips, and my body relaxed. I nodded.

“Alright.” Nancy squeezed my hand. “The sun begins to slice into the horizon…”

I thought of the first time I met Nancy. She had asked me to dance. It was the first time I danced in my wheelchair, and it was also the first time since my accident that I laughed so much, my face hurt.

“…a brilliant array of colors, purple like lavender, pink like the bow I sometimes wear in my hair, deep orange like a roasted carrot…”

Nancy’s story of our first kiss was nearly correct. It was our second date, and she was wearing a bow. When I ran my fingers through her hair, I knocked it to the ground. I fell out of my chair trying to grab it for her. But instead of being embarrassed, we both cracked up. It had been a long time since I had felt so normal.

“…these are intertwined and woven together into thousands of threads, a blanket of light that bounces off the river and into the city. The buildings are mirrors, there are hundreds of sunsets everywhere you look…”

Nancy, curled up in my arms, trying and failing to hold back tears. Thirty medical school applications. Thirty rejections. I told her she would find another way to be brilliant. I was right.

“…the sun gets smaller until, more suddenly than you think it’ll happen, it’s swallowed by the horizon. The blanket remains, settling over the sky, falling softly over the Earth…”

One day, you’re going to change the world. The world needed her. I needed her.

“…the first star twinkles.” She took my index finger and pressed it against the glass. “There. The first star of the night. Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. Go on, make a wish!”

I made a wish. I wished to see the setting sun with the woman I loved. I wished to see the deep browns of her silky hair as I ran it through my fingers. I wished to see the bow that she sometimes put above her right ear. The bow I thought I knew so well, but had no idea was pink until now. I wished to see the green in her eyes. The scar just above her left cheekbone. Her slender shoulders. Her hips as I wrapped my arms around them. I wanted to see it all. I craved it.

But I would never be able to.

I almost asked her to stay. I almost said I would go with her. But in each scenario, there was only heartache, pain, and resentment. Dreams unfulfilled, or nightmares realized. The cacophony of indecision threatened to drown me out, pull me under, send me tumbling.

I took myself away. For a moment, I was back in Ireland. The crashing of the waves against the cliffs. The emerald shamrocks swaying in the wind. My legs under me, the smell of salt in the air. A space where I felt alive, unrestrained. The world had me in its claws, but there, I was free.

Nancy deserved to feel that way, too.

I raised my hand up to her mouth, tracing her lips with my thumb. They were curved into a smile.

She took my hand and kissed it. “You know I love you.”

I pressed her hand against my lips and returned her kiss. “I love you too, Nancy. So much.”

My tether to the world was short, but there was no reason Nancy had to share it with me. I knew then as she gripped my hand that I had to let her go.

She grasped my hand harder as I started to shake. Tears rolled down my cheeks, finding their way between trembling lips. The taste of salt water was like the smell of the ocean. “That’s why I can’t do this anymore. You have to go, and I have to stay. I can’t hold you back. I won’t hold you back, Nancy. I won’t.”

I broke down. I started falling, tumbling into infinity as my world collapsed. Like always, Nancy caught me. I was lifted back up by the scent of lilacs as my face fell against her shoulder, wetting the soft fabric of her shirt.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. We can figure it out. Please, Richie. Please.” Tears of her own fell onto the top of my head like raindrops.

With a deep breath, I tried to settle myself with familiar sensations. My cozy nook carved out in the vastness of reality. One that wouldn’t last. The words finally came. “I’m sorry. So, so sorry. This is something I need. I need you to go, and I need to stay. There is no other way, though I really, really wish there was. I can’t live with myself knowing I kept you from this opportunity, and I can’t live in San Francisco.” I swallowed hard as the tears returned. “I really tried, but I can’t. I just can’t…” I broke down again as she held me a bit tighter.

“I…I hear you, Richie. I do.” Nancy shivered as she tried to speak. She managed a whisper. “And I’m sorry, too.”

We held each other for hours. I’ll cling to that memory for as long as I live.

Nancy was somewhere in the sky on her way to San Francisco when the jeweler left a message.

The ring was ready.

I had been lying on the bed, grasping at the familiar sounds and smells that made this my home, not just our home. But the laughter on the wind made me think of her bouts of giggles when I found the right pun. The scent of coffee from the downstairs unit’s afternoon pick-me-up reminded me of waking to the gentle, rhythmic sighs of Nancy’s milk frother as she prepared her morning chai.

The apartment was full with the absence of her.

I had thought about the ring and knew what this moment meant. The refund policy was clear—in-person, receipt in hand.

Maybe this was what I needed. A metaphorical ripping-off-the-band-aid. A tangible action that demonstrated I could move on.

But why did it feel as I finally pulled the balled-up receipt out of my jacket pocket that I was reaching into my chest and ripping out my heart?

The back of my neck burned. I scratched, digging my nails into flaming skin until I felt the warm trickle of blood. Creams, antibiotics, herbal remedies—nothing seemed to help. Another piece of myself that was broken, it seemed.

I sent a message to Curtis, asking if he could meet me at the jeweler in an hour. To my surprise, he responded. Sure, boss. I’ll be there. I’ll bring the VR. I had told him the day after Nancy and I broke up that I wanted the machine. If she was going to do brilliant things, why couldn’t I? I needed to rebuild my reality anyway.

It started to rain. Thick droplets pitter-pattered against concrete walls and pinged off steel fire escapes. As I reached into the closet to pull out my rain jacket, my fingers brushed against a familiar sharp angled collar.

My face was wet long before I was outside.

I arrived at the corner of 46th and Madison ten minutes early. Even in the rain the streets of midtown were crowded. A sea of people parted around me. Wet plastic bags filled with new clothes or takeaway food sloshed against my shoulders as everyone hurried along with the current. Everyone but me. Within it all, I was alone. Alone with the wind gasping through tight alleyways. Alone with the downpour as pools of water settled on my lap. Alone with my memory of being here just a few weeks ago, when I chose the ring. The attendant had allowed me to pick the diamond, and I knew the right one as soon as I felt it. Sharp edges attached smooth faces in dramatic symmetry. My breath broke over my hand as I thought of the moment I would ask her, how I was so sure she would say ‘yes’. That it would all last forever. Everything would always be perfect, in our little familiar slice of the world.

I’ve been told that if a diamond is perfect, it’ll be as clear as glass, so glass is often used to produce cheap but convincing fakes. You might not know which one you have until it’s shattered in your hands.

I don’t know how long I waited, but at some point, he showed up, a whirlwind of apologies. “I’m sorry boss, the E train was a mess, Canal Street stop was flooded. Ain’t that ironic? And…Rich, you okay?”

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

I leaned into him, burying my face into the dampened fabric of his shirt, my tears intermingling with the rain. Curtis knelt and wrapped me in an embrace.

“Of course I’m here. I’ve got you, don’t worry.”

As the currents of people continued to flow around us, I was still in the middle of it all. But I was no longer alone. And I knew I was going to be okay.

After Curtis helped me return the ring, he stopped by the apartment and set up NVision for me, integrating it with Athena so I could easily start and stop the program.

I sat on Nancy’s favorite chair for hours that afternoon. The faint smell of lilacs still filled the air. I held the cable of the machine, thinking about where I wanted to go. Every once in a while, I wiped a stubborn tear off my cheek. Suddenly, I had an idea, as bright and brilliant as that first flash of light I saw when Curtis sent me to Ireland. Out of the idea came a burst of hope.

“Athena, I would like to use NVision.”

“Of course. Where would you like to go, Richard?”

I smiled. “Take me to San Francisco.”

I noticed, in the brief moment before I was transported away from New York, that the back of my neck no longer itched.