In Tomorrow And Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch, a disaster reduces Pittsburgh to rubble — but you can still visit a perfect digital reconstruction of the city, from just before the disaster. And maybe solve an unsolved murder. Check out the book's first chapter below.
Her body's down in Nine Mile Run, half-buried in river mud. Timestamped late April, the rains must have exposed her. Or maybe the rain-swollen river rose around her, the current rinsing away the foot or so of silt that had covered her. Timestamped 6:44pm—shafts of sunlight break slant through the woods, dappling the mud in the clearings. The water's a mossy green where the sunlight hits, but outside the direct sunlight the water's a sooty brown, almost black. I think of the earth here, the history of this place, how accustomed it is to burning—the hillsides running steep to the riverbed were once slag heaps for the mills, rolling landslides of molten ash—but by the time I knew this place, everything was reclaimed and greened. It was a city park.
When the timestamp's reached 7:31pm it's grown too dark to see so I adjust the light filters. The woods and the body brighten with the sickly pallor of digitized light. I can see her feet now, white like white mushrooms grown bulbous in the soil. Bookmark the body. I leave her, finding my way back through the woods along the jogging path in the utter dark.
At the trailhead parking lot I reset to 6:15pm, a half hour before I will find her body. The night reverses to a bluer shade of dusk. I follow the jogging path that runs serpentine through the woods before scaling down a tangle of roots and bramble, holding onto reedy branches to keep my balance. I've been this way before. Scan the underbrush for footprints or signs of struggle, scraps of clothing, anything, but I don't find any tangible traces until I find the white lump of her body—a pallid curve I take as her back and a spray of hair much darker from mud than the honey-brown I know from photographs of her. I kneel near her. I study her, trying to piece together what happened—trying to understand. At 7:31pm it's grown too dark to see.
I retrace my steps. At the trailhead parking lot, I reset to 6:15pm and the night reverses. Her body's down there, half-buried in mud. I start along the jogging path, scanning the woods for traces of her. I'll find her in about twenty minutes.
People often ask us how their loved ones died, expecting extraordinary circumstances or wondering whether they suffered terribly, and I'm reminded of Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts because, with rare exception, the deaths we research are banal—someone eating, opening a window or walking dully along. Nothing extraordinary—though often survivors remember how fine a day it was, how perfect for autumn, how almost like summer. The end occurred quickly, that much is verifiable—no one suffered except the ones who lived. Five hundred thousand lives ended in the blinding white flash. Shadows elongated and became like charcoal smudges, the City became like snowy ash and in a breath of wind vanished. Other than details, all we really answer about their loved ones is that they likely did not suffer and they likely died as they had lived. Even this dreadful martyrdom ran its course.
Ten years since the end.
* * * *
Dr. Simka has diagnosed me with major depressive disorder, substance abuse disorder and secondary traumatization. He's prescribed Zoloft and suggests I should exercise more, that jogging through Rock Creek Park when the weather's nicer or training for the National Half-Marathon will cleanse toxins from my bloodstream. He says I'm putting on weight and it worries him.
"Maybe we should try to lose some weight together," I've told him, but he just pats his belly and laughs.
Simka's offices are over in Kalorama, near 21st and Florida, in the building with the bright red door. He's filled his waiting room with furniture that he's made—black cherry Mission-style chairs, a magazine table, a matching bookshelf filled with his early editions of Lacan. After our bi-weekly hour I feel I've pawned damaged goods to him, that my case is certain to hurt his success rate. I mention this to him while he's signing my EAP paperwork, but he just smiles and nods and strokes his bushy mustache and says, "You don't need style points to win—"
I've learned to trust Dr. Simka. I talk with him about Theresa, about my memories. We discuss the amount of time I spend in the Pittsburgh archive visiting her. We try to set limits, boundaries—we try to set goals. Simka doesn't believe in VR therapy, preferring face to face contact with his patients, so I relax on his cushy leather couch and have conversations with him—about anything, anything at all, whatever's on my mind, whatever thoughts I'm trying to exorcise. I talk with him about my work for Kucenic, about the archival research I'm assigned—the information's confidential, but I unburden myself to Simka. I told him about RFI #14502, the woman whose body I found.
"There was a dispute," I told him. "The woman's beneficiary—her sister, in Akron—filed claims for the woman and three children, but State Farm contested the claims to avoid part of the payout, contending that only two of the woman's children could be verified as dying as a direct result of the bomb—"
"So, your firm was contacted to confirm their deaths," said Simka.
"Kucenic won the case in a batch bid and assigned it as part of my caseload," I told him. "We were contracted to find evidence to bolster State Farm's dispute, or if we found that all three children did die in the blast, to provide recommendations for a settlement—"
"Either way, you're searching for a dead child," said Simka.
"I found the first death easily enough," I told him. "A boy at Harrison Middle School. Plenty of security cameras in the school, plenty of footage to reconstruct his life. I made sure I was with him in the classroom as he died, marking when the white light streamed through the windows, marking when he burned. The second child was only a few months old. Another boy. I logged several hours in the house with the policy holder, the mother. She spent almost every afternoon watching The Price is Right while her boy cried in the bassinet. Sometimes I picked up the boy to try and soothe him, I don't know why—I knew it didn't matter, that the boy was long since dead, that the crying was just a webcam recording recreated there. I just held him, sang to him until he calmed, but the moment I put him down the archive reset and he was back in his bassinet crying. He was crying in his crib when he died. Each child earned a separate report—"
"And the third?" asked Simka.
"Hannah," I told him. "Nineteen years old. She'd been tampered with in the archive, huge chunks of her life deleted. State Farm keyed in on the deletions when their researchers first examined the claim, which is why they put it up for bid, but they couldn't track her—"
"And you could?" asked Simka.
"I can be obsessive about the research, is all," I told him. "State Farm doesn't have the manpower. When something's been deleted from the archive it generates an exception report because the code falters. If you isolate timeframes you can print thousands of pages of exception reports and slog through them, try to stitch back what's happened. Clever hacks replace whatever they've deleted or changed in the archive with something else, something similar—if you're careful, you can delete something and insert a forgery without generating an error message at all. Whoever deleted Hannah, though, wasn't skilled or very careful—I could reconstruct her life by following the exception messages, reading the code, it just took time. I imagine it's like following a boar after it crashes through the underbrush—"
"Where did you find her?" asked Simka.
"I found her body in the river, half-buried in mud over in this reclaimed slag site called Nine Mile Run. Academic footage of the watershed taken by Carnegie Mellon's Environmental Science department. Her body had been buried there, but the rain washed away the mud that had covered her. Whoever deleted her didn't think to delete JSTOR footage, or didn't know it existed as part of the archive. By the time I found her body, she was swollen. Hard to even recognize—"
"You seem particularly upset over her death. You deal with this type of work on a regular basis—"
"You would have liked her," I told him. "She was a psych major. An actress in a comedy troupe called Scotch'n'Soda. She was a head-turner, vibrant—but I couldn't even recognize her body when I found her in that footage. Only a few minutes of white in the mud, a partial of her back and her feet. I had to prove it was her through the exception reports—"
Nearly every death is contested, nearly every property damage claim. Billions and billions of dollars in lawsuits. My research is handled like a spreadsheet, but I told Simka those three children still troubled my sleep. Simka listened attentively—he always listens to what I have to say like he's hearing essential news. I told him I replay those children's deaths so often I can't tell if I'm reliving their deaths in the archive or if I'm just remembering what I'd seen. I ask him to help me stop remembering. He jots down notes in a yellow legal pad. He doesn't interrupt me with too many questions. He lets me speak. When he does talk, he spends a lot of our time together asking about the Beatles—what certain lyrics mean.
"The Beatles dropped acid and ate psychotropics when they wrote," I tell him, "so as a mental health professional, you're in a better position to interpret their lyrics than I am—"
"True, true," he says, "but I might miss literary aspects that you're trained to find. You know, I picked up on a lot more of Baudelaire by talking with you than I did through the apps, so maybe between the two of us, we can make some sense of Abbey Road—"
He suggests I should keep a journal. Just write the date at the top of the page and continue from there. Just be free with it, it will help. He gave me an ultimatum—that I'd have to at least try journaling or he wouldn't continue signing my EAP paperwork. I don't believe the threat, but he actually bought me this notebook—real paper, I think—and presented it to me with a download called "The Progoff Intensive Method." He says I should write in longhand, that it will help my concentration—that dictation apps don't have the same calming effect as penmanship. Simka is holistic—he believes the building blocks to a healthy, productive lifestyle already exist within me, but that I have to learn how to stack the blocks in a new way. He suggests I listen to classical music to improve my sustained concentration skills. Feeds and streams contribute to the fracturing of our consciousness, he says. Try John Adams and listen through—at least twenty minutes a stretch, without augments, without shuffle. He hums a tune the Adware eventually identifies as Grand Pianola Music—click to add to iTunes library.
I take my Zoloft every night, but every night I wake up dreaming of my wife. 4a.m. 6a.m. The clock-radio plays Hot 99.5, Crap-Pop, but I lie deadened and listen, wishing my bed was a sinkhole and that I'd somehow die. The clock-radio plays into the afternoon before I bring myself to shut it off, before I bring myself to climb out of bed. I indulge in Pop Tarts and Mrs. Fields. I've been eating Ho-Hos. Gavril swung by late Friday afternoon to see how I was feeling and found me eating an entire box of Ho-Hos for breakfast, with coffee. "No wonder you're sick all the time," he said, his breath like espresso and cigarettes mixed up with those blueberry Coolsa strips he chews.
A few years ago, Simka ended a session by saying, "Dominic, a fish rots head first—"
He suggested I rediscover personal hygiene—that no matter how bad I feel, I was sure to feel worse if I didn't shower. So, I shower—and that has helped. I shave every morning. Long strokes with the razor, over my neck and jaw, over my skull. It's bruised up there—black splotches, violet. Labyrinthine ridges of Adware like a street map of a foreign city embossed on my skull. I look in the mirror and follow the lines of wires as if they might lead me somewhere—anywhere other than where I really am.
Simka says to find someplace comfortable to write. He's described his home office to me, out in Maryland, with its oak desk and a picture window overlooking a woodland backyard. My apartment's public housing, but there's a fire-escape terrace with a view of the surrounding rooftops—air conditioning units and service entries. It's chilly out here. The neighboring terrace's potted plants died weeks ago in the first frost but are still outside, brown and brittle. I sip my coffee and bundle in my robe and sweat pants, a gray hoodie and slipper-thick socks. The sunrise pinks the sky—beautiful. Quiet. Wi-Fi's included in the lease, or should be, but the router's been broken going on three years. I hear a wet click whenever my Adware tries to auto-connect—like a popping knuckle just behind my right ear—and have to dismiss the low-signal warnings, again and again, even though I've asked never to be alerted. Every five minutes, click—the network connection icon in my peripheral spins and the low-signal warning pops up again like a floater in my line of sight. Dismiss, I tell it. Five minutes later, click. I can only take so much.
So, here it is: A Day in the Life. A chronicle for Dr. Simka.
Theresa. Theresa Marie.
Even writing her name feels like scratching a phantom limb.
Reprinted from Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Sweterlitsch.