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Chapter 9

The Pathway (v1)

I placed the pen down and cried. I was desperately in love with Julie, and yearned to have her back. Reliving the moment of our first meeting had brought so many painful memories to the surface. I needed to calm down, to gather myself. I decided to break for the day, thinking I would take a leisurely stroll to the library for another meeting with Angela’s little writer’s group.

I had much to discuss with them.

I rose with some effort, due partly to my exhaustion, but also because I felt a strong compulsion to continue on to the next chapter; to remember more of my story. I wanted to rediscover what had happened during my first date with Julie. And to learn more about this strange, distorted historical record that I had invented. I realised I was quickly becoming obsessed with sculpting my past reality. Angela had been right to advise me to seize control; it was addictive.

My stomach grumbled as I rubbed my face and checked my phone. There was ample time for lunch, I needn’t rush to the library. I crossed to the stovetop, lighting it aflame and turning the heat to its maximum setting. I lifted a large, heavy pot from an alcove underneath the counter, filling it with water and placing it above the blue flame. I then began to retrieve items from the fridge and pantry, laying out a wooden chopping board and fetching my sharpest knife from the kitchen drawer. I crushed a few cloves of garlic, chopping them up finely, then washed and drained a bunch of fresh parsley and a few bright red chillies. I chopped these up too, and grated a rind of parmesan onto a saucer. My preparations done, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and waited for the simmering water to come to a boil.

I took a deep draught and considered what I had just written. Some of it remained puzzling to me, although it had seemed natural at the time. There had never been a quantum computer on campus, had there? And I was certain that I had never heard of anyone called Salvatore, or of his so-called claustrum, which was just a genuine-sounding word that I’d invented when the need arose. Wasn’t it? And why had I named the ELIZA clone after Angela? Hadn’t it been called something else in reality? But most of all, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of why I’d given Julie a different name. Jenny had no significance to me, and writing about other people wasn’t as irksome as writing about myself, so there really was no reason at all to bestow a pseudonym upon her. I had no idea why I had done so.

The pot rattled, hot water spilling over its rim.

I emerged from my reverie and resumed my meal preparation. I placed a good handful of spaghetti in the pot, stirring it gently, waiting for the water to come to a steady boil again before reducing the heat to allow the rolling pasta to reach a stable equilibria. This done, I sat down at my writing table once more, knowing that I had precisely eight minutes to kill.

I sipped the beer and contemplated my predicament.

Taking control of my writing had rekindled my interest in life. I deeply missed Julie, and I now realised that the restrictions placed on me by my house arrest, together with the drudgery of long hours of shift work, had driven a wedge between us, transporting me to the very brink of despair. Writing provided a way out, a glimmer of hope, a promise of a happy future together. I felt suddenly ecstatic, confident that I had stumbled onto the pathway that Angela had spoken of; I need only walk along its length to reach a satisfying resolution.

With the garlicky taste of my lunch in my mouth, I set out to the library. It was a beautifully sunny day, neither too warm nor too cold. I smiled, enjoying my stroll, admiring the colours of the plants and flowers along my walking route. It all seemed almost hyper-real in the bright sunshine.

The library eventually came into view. It was just a regular building, nothing special. How odd to think that I had once feared it! That, only a few days before, I had never passed through its front door! I entered quickly, greeted Angela, and took my place among the group, settling down in expectation.

“Welcome back, Jay,” said Angela. “How has the writing been coming along?”

“Really well,” I replied, and went on to describe in detail exactly how well things had been going, a grin on my face, my voice light and happy, not caring one jot if I monopolised Angela’s time.

“That’s fantastic Jay,” she said once I’d finished. “It’s really great that you’ve been reaching back into your memories to take control of them like that. You’ve been making great progress this week! I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next between Lloyd and this new Jenny character.”

I nodded, thankful that her gentle advice was pushing me in the direction that I already wanted to take. Angela continued to proceed around the circle as usual. I tuned out, staring at the books that stood to attention along the shelves, allowing my eyes to unfocus, waiting for the meeting to be over.

The writer’s group broke up silently, everyone departing and going their various ways. I emerged blinking into the daylight to find that one of the other attendees, a young, petite woman, had been waiting outside the slotted door. She smiled at me as I stepped past her, all teeth and dimples and flowing blonde hair.

“I’m Jennifer,” she introduced herself, extending her slender arm. “Some coincidence, don’t you think?” She stared at me in mock surprise, eyebrows raised, pink lips parted to reveal rows of flawless teeth.

I took her hand and shook it gently, her skin soft to the touch. How had I not noticed her before? She was stunningly beautiful, standing before me in a breezy summer dress. I stammered a reply, desperately aware of the taste of garlic in my mouth, and of my unseemly appearance.

“I loved hearing about your work today,” she said. “You’ve got a real talent. I wish I could write like that.”

“Thanks very much,” I replied. “I mostly feel like I’m just bumbling my way through.”

“No, not at all, you’re incredible.” Jennifer looked directly into my eyes, biting her lower lip. She looked slightly embarrassed. “I was thinking that perhaps you named your new character after me? That maybe you saw my name written down in Angela’s notes?”

I admitted to myself that it was a likely explanation. I had been thinking about Julie, and must have noticed this girl before, on the periphery of awareness, especially given how reminiscent she was of how my wife when we’d first met all those years ago. And I did get a good look at Angela’s notebook during our earlier discussion in her inner office, so the name must have jumped out and stuck in my subconscious, waiting to serve a purpose. Yes, that must have been it. What other explanation could there be?

“Would you mind if I walked with you for a bit? I’d love to pick your mind.”

I nodded in agreement and we began walking together along the street in no particular direction. Jennifer chatted away, bubbly and happy and flirtatious. Her laughter was infectious, and was always accompanied by a light touch on my upper arm. After a while I noticed that the shadows had lengthened, that the sun was falling beneath the treeline. We walked together in dappled shade, oblivious to everyone else, the external world forgotten.

“Feeling hungry? Let’s go get something to eat. Or drink.”

Jennifer pointed across the road towards a small bistro that I’d failed to notice. I wasn’t at all hungry, but a drink sounded like it would hit the spot. She held my hand as we crossed the street. My throat was dry. My heart pounded in my chest. How could this be happening?

I awoke to the taste of wine and the smell of a cooked breakfast. I stretched out in bed, relaxed and happy. I had enjoyed a deep and restful sleep, and had woken late. Sunlight was streaming into the apartment. I was refreshed and alive and totally present in the moment. My urge to continue writing was strong.

I called out for Jennifer, thinking that she must be in the kitchen waiting for me, but I received no reply. I got up and entered the empty bathroom, used the toilet, washed my face, checked my appearance in the mirror. I looked old and worn, and wondered what the young woman from the writer’s group had seen in me.

I walked out into the kitchen to find it empty. A steaming plate of bacon, sausages and eggs lay waiting for me, my manuscript arranged neatly beside it. A mug of freshly brewed coffee beckoned, it’s scent compelling me onward. I crossed to the kitchen table and sat down, taking a drink from the mug. I noticed a small scrap of paper hidden underneath it. A note. Jennifer must have left it for me. I picked it up and read its message.

“Sorry I had to leave so suddenly, but I know you’ll understand. Follow me when you’re ready; you know what you have to do. All my love, J.”

I had several hours to spare before I needed to leave the apartment to follow Jennifer to our meeting with Angela, so I ate my breakfast slowly, reading through what I had written so far, starting at the very beginning. I found it disjointed and poorly formed, and was dismayed to discover that it read like the ravings of a madman. Angela had warned me about this problem; it was apparently common with early drafts.

I thought about Julie, and of her embodiment in my story as the character of Jenny. She and Lloyd were about to go on their first date; camping out in the wilderness, far away from civilisation, just as Julie and I had done. And Rob, Dan and Sal were experimenting with Angela, the machine. How was I going to tie all of that together? And how was Mike going to re-enter the story? I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but knew that they would come with time and effort.

I pushed my empty plate aside, and started to write with gusto.




Written for NaNoWriMo 2015; edited to first-draft quality during NaNoWriMo 2016

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Jason Hutchens

Jason Hutchens

Procrastinating perfectionist.

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