The last echoes of a summer storm were passing when Lucas heard a voice say, “I can’t find my glasses.”
Such a statement was nothing new; Erik was often losing things around the house, and the fact that he couldn’t see well without his glasses just made finding them all the harder. That he hadn’t phrased his ask as a question was also typical. Lucas had spent the better part of his life responding to such non-questions.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
“I’m so hot,” Erik would say, fanning himself in the chair in the den. Or “I forgot to turn off the lights in the kitchen,” he’d mutter as he climbed into bed with no intention of getting out again.
For the most part, Lucas didn’t mind attending to Erik’s demands. There was a time when the relationship had just lost its freshness when Lucas had almost said something along the lines of at least make it a question, which translated to, at least pretend I have a choice in the matter.
The time for that conversation had long since passed, and so it was without annoyance or resentment that Lucas pulled the covers back and sat up on the side of the bed. The room was dark, devoid of any LEDs, flashing or otherwise, and no clocks telling him the time. Thick blackout curtains hung on the bay windows, allowing only the slightest hint of the lightning flashing outside. A noise machine whirring on the bedside table drowned out the accompanying thunder, more and more with each passing second.
Dark and quiet, the way Erik liked it.
Lucas sought out his slippers on the floor, found them, and wiggled his toes into position. It took two tries to stand up, and for a moment, he almost reached for the cane leaning against the bed. He didn’t always need it to walk, but sometimes in the morning, when his body was at its stiffest, the extra support helped. He stood in place for a moment, swaying slightly, and let his bones settle into position. The cartilage in his knees had dwindled to almost nothing, leaving his bones to rub against each other when he walked.
Every step had some element of pain to it, but Lucas was used to it. His biochip had been tuned to allow the flashes of discomfort through, just enough feedback to tell him when he should take it easy and rest. There was a thunderstorm of pain in his knees, but like the noise machine by his bed, the biochip muffled it down, allowing him to sleep easy, or in this case, walk.
It also helped when he had a mission, a purpose. Erik losing his glasses was a problem to be solved, a simple equation with a finite resolution. The glasses were somewhere in the house, probably downstairs in the den, perhaps laid across the cover of some Nabokov book Erik had become fond of in his later years. The prize for solving the problem would be appreciation and the opportunity to climb back into bed, both of which Lucas wanted.
He walked in darkness to the bedroom door, stepped into the hall, and shut the door softly behind him. Once it was closed and there was no chance of light leaking in, he touched the panel on the wall and illuminated the bulbs hanging from the ceiling. They graded up to a warm yellow, just enough to show they were there and give some detail to the green and red rug running the center of the hallway. His slippers padded a slow beat, syncopated with the drag of his left leg that didn’t move as well as the right.
There was a chill in the house, but that was normal after a storm. A cold front must have blown in behind it, supplementing the air conditioning and driving the temperature below the preferred 71 degrees. Lucas marked a waypoint on his mental map of the house to visit the thermostat. It was downstairs, on the wall outside the kitchen. Not much of a detour.
The hallway opened into a lofted area gated by a railing on its open side. Beyond the wooden slats, tall windows flashed blue, showing a landscape obscured by falling water. For a moment, in one of the flashes, Lucas thought he saw someone standing at the head of the stairs, perhaps with one hand out on the railing, but they were turned away from him, non-threatening, as if preparing themselves for the journey down.
In another flash of distant lightning, the figure was gone, replaced by the outstretched arms of the assistive walking device they’d installed shortly after Erik’s first stroke. It had the feel of an exoskeleton, something to wrap around his body to hold Erik steady as he walked down the long staircase.
Lucas had started using the device not too long ago, secretly at first, then openly as his fear of falling to his death became stronger. The house was old, having stood for some forty years, and built at a time when tall ceilings were a must even with two-story homes. Thus the staircase, looking long and elegant when they were younger, had become something of an obstacle now.
The walker kept them safe, however. Its firm hands and smooth movements made Lucas feel as if he were traversing the steps on his own, but at the same time, reassured him it was there to catch him were he to lose his balance.
Lucas slipped into the walker, waited a few seconds for it to calibrate, and then began descending the stairs. It was noticeably colder on the first floor, making his night shirt feel exceptionally thin. There had been a robe hanging on the back of the bedroom door, but it was too late for that now.
If anything, it made the mission more exciting. Lucas added some context to his plan: retrieve Erik’s glasses and turn on the heat before they both froze to death. There was no doubt in his mind that he could go back to bed that instant and they would be fine until morning. Between the heavy duvet and their own body heat, they would surely survive the house dipping into the high 60’s.
At the foot of the stairs, the walker let go of his hips with the quiet encouragement of a father releasing his child as they sped away on two wheels for the first time. Lucas stepped into a wide hallway leading to the left, his presence calling forth the guide lights on the floor.
“It’s like the aisle on an airplane,” Erik had called the effect once. “I feel like I’m trudging to a cramped bathroom on a red eye.”
It was a baseless comparison, of course. On a plane, the aisle would have been bracketed by cramped rows of tiny seats. In the house, the walls were a smooth wood adorned with framed photos of the past. Small alcoves set into the wood held knickknacks and trophies and sometimes a short stack of books. Neither Lucas nor Erik cared much for decoration, but they had filled the spaces nonetheless, perhaps haphazardly yet still to a pleasant result.
Lucas turned left at a small table where an ornate brass bowl held yesterday’s mail, and the day’s before, and the day’s before, all of it unopened. There really was no reason to open it, no coupon worth drooling over or credit offer worth considering. If anyone wanted to correspond with him, they would send a message, whether through the network, or in rare cases, the MESH.
Thinking about the MESH made Lucas pause in the entryway to the den. There were no commands to type to figure out if he was connected to the MESH, if anyone was close enough to trade data with him over the ad-hoc, peer-to-peer network. It was just a gathering of awareness, a turning of his attention inward to see if anyone populated the gray area in the back of his mind where he stood on one side of an ill-defined space and on the other stood a portal to the rest of humanity.
Were he not alone in his home, were his home not isolated in the countryside, people and their data would have been spilling in through that portal, whether he wanted them to or not.
The sound of a crackling fire pulled his attention into the den. A dark fireplace sat beneath a thick wooden beam of a mantel. Lucas couldn’t remember the last time he’d set a fire in the hearth, but he’d heard the sound of embers crackling just the same. The MESH was like that sometimes. As much as a person reached into the MESH to find others, the MESH reached into the person to find thoughts and memories and emotions.
Why it did that, Lucas had never been able to fully explain.
That it did that was why the world was in the state it was.
Lucas touched the panel on the wall, dragging his finger up a metal plate. The lamps in the corners responded, spilling a soft light into the den. Of all the rooms in the house, the den was where they spent the most time, whether it was on the long couch with their feet up on the padded ottoman, or in the upholstered rocking chairs facing the matching bay window from their bedroom. There were no curtains on the windows in the den, and during the day, they could see a mile to the east over a verdant meadow free of other houses or MESH towers or other distractions.
The image of a pair of wire-rimmed glasses sitting atop a copy of The Original of Laura flashed in Lucas’ mind. His eyes jumped to the circular table sitting between the two rocking chairs and the red, leather-bound book placed there. As he approached, it became clear the glasses weren’t there. Nor had Erik left them carelessly on the rocker seat, ready to be sat on the next time one of them wanted to enjoy the view.
Lucas shuffled from one surface to another, still feeling the weight of interrupted sleep on his shoulders. He found the ottoman empty except for a tea cup and saucer. Erik was fond of teas and loved to sample as many varieties as possible. For a time, they’d had a subscription service send boxes of new flavors right to their door. Most of those boxes, with names like Summer Dew or Autumn Hope, now sat untouched at the back of the pantry. Only recently had Lucas opened them up and begun to try them.
Autumn Hope tasted like a Holly bush leaf pulled from the dirt, but he drank it nonetheless.
After a few minutes of searching the den, Lucas moved on to the kitchen and its attached, informal dining room. No glasses on the counter or on the table. The solution to the problem was moving further out of reach with each room he dismissed. More worrisome was that he was running out of rooms to search. It wasn’t as if they bandied about the house every day, running from room to room like children playing tag.
Lucas turned off the lights in the kitchen and flashed again on a silhouette standing in the hallway. The figure’s back was turned as before, but this time its head was cocked to the side, as if examining the door by which it stood.
Simply trying to focus his eyes on the figure caused it to disappear, leading Lucas to wonder if he were perhaps dreaming or hallucinating. He was confident there were no spirits in the house, and didn’t believe in that sort of thing besides. He imagined the figure could have been a projection of his future self, since it was reasonable to check Erik’s office for his glasses, even though no one had gone in that room in years.
Lucas stopped with his hand outstretched for the doorknob. A cool breeze passed over his fingers. In the back of his mind, an image of the glasses flashed again, only this time the leather on which the wire rims sat wasn’t red, but rather a russet brown, the same color as the writing pad on Erik’s desk in his office, the same desk where his glasses had sat for the better part of a decade.
It wasn’t a dream, and it wasn’t a hallucination.
It was the MESH, reaching into his mind again, pulling out the memories and playing them back to Lucas whether he wanted to remember them or not. That the memories were of Erik made it all the worse. The flashes from the MESH were intrusions, yes, but they were at the same time welcome and unwanted.
Before the MESH, memories of those who had passed lived on in their homes, their belongings, and in the minds of those who had loved them. Lucas decided what photos to keep on the mantel and which doors to keep locked. He remembered Erik on his own terms, when he was willing… and able.
The problem resolved itself in a single moment of recognition.
Erik didn’t need his glasses. Nobody who lived only as an echo in the MESH needed much of anything.
That included acknowledgement.
Lucas closed his hand into a fist and left the door to Erik’s office undisturbed. His heart rate had increased for a brief moment as reality crystalized around him, but his biochip was dutifully lowering it again. He let the subtle aftertaste of some synth drug settle in the back of his throat.
Seconds later, the moment was all but forgotten.
He turned and walked to the thermostat on the wall by the kitchen. The display illuminated orange when he tapped the button for heat.
With his mission complete, Lucas bade goodnight to the vague figure standing near the windows, back turned, looking out at the receding storm, and headed back upstairs, ready to return to his comfortable, yet empty, bed.