Icy You…Juicy Me – page 3

by Pat Cadigan

by Pat Cadigan

Darcy looked down at herself and burst out laughing. So he saw her. At forty, she actually wasn't half bad-Pilates had been invented for prisoners, even the virtual kind. But all that aside-he was a crazy guy. Who knew what he saw, or what he thought he was seeing?
Maybe he only thought he was seeing her, period.

Tension Darcy had been unaware of drained out of her in a rush. Her shoulders dropped three inches as she sagged against the doorway, shaking her head and laughing a little. Insanity could be contagious. What did they call it when two people shared a delusion? Folie à deux. Could you catch it by accident? Maybe...if you had kind of a head start, say, with an unreasoning fear, unreasoning being the key word. Unreasoning as in irrational; irrational as in crazy. Q.E.D.

But not quite. Enough to be fooled briefly-and briefly was the key word there, thank you-but not so crazy that it would stick. Nothing that would make you take up ritual telephone dancing or trading signals with some hallucinating fool four thousand miles away in another time zone. Crazy people weren't stupid. Most had normal intelligence, some of them were quite brilliant. Her crazy guy, for example, could well be brilliance combined with experience working in the field of surveillance, prior to his going over the edge into madness.

Sure. He might have been a security guard in one of those giant office buildings, paid to watch a whole wall of monitors. That wasn't anything like just checking out a few webcams in exotic locations, that would drive anyone around the bend.

So day after day, he sat in front of his wall of monitors as people came and went and came back and went again and disappeared, reappeared, always ignoring him. No matter how carefully he watched them, they ignored him. Ignored him and ignored him and ignored him, until one day, he just cracked. Sure. She could see that. She could imagine him suddenly jumping up from his chair in front of the wall of monitors and screaming at all those oblivious people entering and leaving and leaving and entering: Goddamit, I am here, I exist! I exist, stop pretending I don't, goddam you all!

After that, everything happens fast. Supervisor comes in, throws him out, and the next thing you know, he's a crazy guy on the street, dancing around telephones and playing to any camera he sees, doing the things he wished all those oblivious, uncaring, under-surveillance people had done for him: i.e., acknowledging the existence of the observer.

The fact that his actions had coordinated with her own movements had been one of those amazing but not totally unheard-of coincidences, a synchronicity that was perhaps a by-product of the technology in a way that had yet to be explained.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Farfetched, maybe, and she could have been wrong about some of the details, but the main virtue of the little story she had just told herself was that it was possible. That it also seemed to endow her with great insight into the modern perils of the human condition didn't hurt. When you didn't get out much, you had a lot of time to think things through, to contemplate what it was to be human.

She started toward the desk and then stopped. Great explanation, but what if he was doing something that blew the whole thing to pieces?
Like what?

She didn't know. He was a very inventive crazy guy, she couldn't imagine but it might catch her off-guard even as armed as she was with rational thoughts, catch her so off-guard that she became too afraid to look at her own computer monitor. What then? What if she developed an unreasoning fear of the Internet? Except it wouldn't be an unreasoning fear-and what then?

Well, she knew what then. Agoraphobes were tolerated, even sympathized with a little, but technophobes might as well go jump in a hole somewhere. Or find some telephones to dance around, ideally not far from the cardboard box they called home.

She gave a short laugh and then covered her mouth. And then pulled her left hand away from her face with her right.

Stop it. Stop it right now. There's no reason to go crazy until-unless-there's no other choice. So far, there's always been an alternative.

Her gaze fell on her purse, sitting on the sideboard beside one of the lamps she had inherited from her aunt. She left it there as if she might, at any time, just grab it up and leave the house on an errand. Just in case someday she could, or at least wanted to try just leaving the house on an errand, her purse would be ready and waiting for her, so that she couldn't use the excuse of not being able to find it or her wallet or her keys. They were all there, in a cozy heap at the bottom of the purse, underneath her make-up kit, which contained one new (mail-order) lipstick and the premium that had come with it as a reward for ordering before whatever cut-off date that had been: a rather large pocket mirror.

She took the pocket mirror out and opened it up. Her face stared back at her expectantly. She gave another short laugh, this one without a hysterical edge to it. So whose face had she been expecting to see?
Don't go there.

She would sneak up on the monitor, she decided. She would sneak up on it and hold the pocket mirror in front of it and see what her crazy friend was doing, as if in the rear view mirror of a car.
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear-

She opened the mirror and tiptoed across the room, refusing to acknowledge how silly the whole thing was. When she got to the side of the desk, she crouched down and raised the mirror slowly, angling it until the screen appeared in the small glass.

She saw a piece of cardboard, with large, black numbers written crudely on it: 212-669-8178.

Bewildered, she raised the mirror a little higher. It was the crazy guy, all right, the same crazy guy, and he was holding the cardboard up in front of his chest with both hands. Two women pushing a stroller appeared behind him, then disappeared as he looked back over his shoulder at the telephones. A woman in a red coat materialized as he looked back at the cam; he had raised his right hand to point his thumb at the phones.

212-669-8178, she read. Easily, because it appeared in normal hand even if it was crude. Which meant that he had printed it backwards, as if he had known she would be looking at it in a-

She snapped the mirror shut and scrambled away from the desk backwards.

OK, said the calm voice from somewhere under all the reasoning and unreasoning fear inside her, what did you really see, and what do you think it means?

The calm voice was always there but tended to get drowned out by the soundless scream of panic. Why she could hear it now, when she felt like screaming out loud for real at full, we-go-to-eleven volume was another one of those little mysterious personal contradictions you could never count on happening when you needed it.

What did you really see? asked the voice again.

The mental image of the crazy guy holding up the piece of cardboard with the crude frontwards-because-they-were-backwards numbers hung before her inner eye, daring her to deny it.

Fine, said the calm voice. Accepted, at least for the time being. What do you think it means?

Her inner eye zoomed in on his crazy face. Ginger beard stubble, just like she'd imagined. Pale eyes, like the color had been washed out, faded. Badly chapped lips, so cracked they had split in the fleshier parts. Broken nose, like a boxer's. Filthy jacket-

But what does it mean? That's what it looks like. What does it mean?
"If I knew that," she muttered at her reflection in the hand mirror, "I'd probably be able to leave the house."

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