Future Tense

“The Void”

A new short story about learning to solve an art mystery.

A silhouette is seen reaching through a picture frame.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives. This story and essay are the second in a series presented by Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, as part of its work on Learning Futures and Principled Innovation. The series explores how learning experiences of all kinds will be shaped by technology and other forces in the future and the moral, ethical, and social challenges this will entail. On Thursday, March 4, at noon Eastern, author Leigh Alexander and Andrea K. Thomer, information scientist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, will discuss this story in an hourlong online discussion moderated by Punya Mishra, professor and associate dean of scholarship and innovation at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. RSVP here.

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Five things you can touch, whispers Rose, and I touch: duvet, her hand, my own hair, the rough plaster of the wall, and my device. It wakes up, a rectangle of soft light in our dark bedroom.

Four things you can hear, she says, and I listen for the tap-tap of water from somewhere in the kitchen, the rhythm of a neighbor’s music through the floor, the rustling of bedsheets and my pounding heart.

Three things you can see, the socket of the empty light fixture on the ceiling, darker dark. My device in bed beside me, and Rose bathed in its light, a graceful silhouette propped up on one elbow.

“There you go, it’s OK,” she says softly, patiently, and she’s right, it’s getting better: Two things I can smell are mildew and the incense we burn to try to cover it up. I can’t taste anything, but by then I don’t mind.

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“You’re OK, Hedy,” she says, taking me in her arms and making circles between my shoulder blades with her knuckles. I can tell by the absent way she draws the circles how tired she is, and now I feel a little pang of guilt for waking her up, even though she always says she never wants me to feel bad, that it’s what we signed up for, taking care of each other.

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This happens to me sometimes, and Rose tries to brighten things with jokes about how it’s practice for when we have a baby. Her sister always says the main thing is that you never get any sleep, so we figure it’ll help being used to that.

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This time, I had a dream about a painting. Either a dream or a memory; I don’t know if it’s real. In the dream, I’m running through this labyrinthine gallery space—gliding, really, like I’m playing a video game, turning corners and hearing the echo of my footsteps on tile. I’m going faster and faster toward this grand picture frame at the end of a long hallway, and as it’s getting closer and closer it comes alive, so the image changes from one thing to another.

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This is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen. I know this with the kind of certainty that’s only possible in dreams, and I also know some divine truth is there, if only I can see exactly what the image is.

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But the awe swells within me so painfully I wake up gasping for breath, unable to get hold of the reins of my heart, and the image slips away like smoke as Rose and I do the anxiety exercise we learned from the therapy app. The painting itself remains lodged in my mind like a splinter, as these Things of mine often do.

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“Are you OK,” Rose whispers in the dark.

“No,” I say. “I can’t remember the painting.”

“A real painting or an imaginary one,” she asks, and I don’t say anything, because I don’t know. Rose is a trooper, and her knuckles grow still at the nape of my neck as she thinks. “Could you be remembering the honeymoon? When we went to the Metropolitan?”

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The word Metropolitan does resonate, recalling and rewriting other parts of the memory: a floor not of tile but of shining parquet wood, freshly painted moldings in sophisticated shades. I feel sure I saw the painting there, and I nod vigorously so she can feel it.

“I think it was a portrait, but abstract at the same time. And huge,” I add, because the scale of the thing in my dream feels important somehow, the tall physicality of it, the substantial frame. I can see Rose’s shadow on the plaster-knobbled wall, haloed in the light of my device, cradling me, and feel sure of something more: “It was a portrait of a woman and child.”

“Is this going to become one of your Things,” she says. I’m pretty sure it is, so I don’t say anything, to let the import of this settle on her.

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“Let’s think about it tomorrow after work,” she says sleepily. She’s the only one of us working right now.

In the wan morning, the Thing with the painting feels even more deeply lodged. “I’m not sure if it exists or if I’m just dreaming it,” I tell Rose as I scrape pea protein across toast for her methodically so the tub will last.

“I don’t know,” she says ruefully. “It’s possible we did have a joyful and authentic experience of art together, and I just forgot.”

The more I think about it, though, the more I’m sure Rose was part of that moment with me—her footfalls joining mine on the parquet, her soft teacher voice explaining something about surrealism: “I think it was a surrealist portrait of a woman and child.”

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“Oh,” she says, “could it have been the Salvador Dalí Madonna?” Rose has her Ph.D. in the design of liminal virtual spaces, so she knows a lot about art. I’d never have gone to so many museums if not for her.

“I don’t know,” I say, flipping through our ambient-space channels and deciding on Family Dining Room With 1980s TV Commercials on in the Next Room. Our apartment has only one window, and it looks out onto a brick wall, so we lean on these channels to help us get through the day. When I put something like 24K Crackling Birchwood Fireplace 6 Hours on the big display, the high-quality sound actually makes us feel warmer.

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“You remember Dr. Bepis?” Rose says. Family Dining Room With 1980s TV Commercials on in the Next Room includes ambient sounds of clinking silverware, but we dust our toasts with mushroom powder and eat them with our hands. “She knows the Metropolitan’s collection really well. I bet you could get in touch with her and she’d know right away what you’re talking about.”

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An uneasy silence falls between us for a moment. “What about the Void,” I say.

It’s been a few months now with the terrifying Void in my life. At first it only appeared around automated calls and unwanted notifications, so it was bearable, but then one day this professor of heritage studies at Rose’s work was supposed to interview me about my experiences of virtual colonialism, and it got worse. It wouldn’t let me call the University Housing Authority about the leak under our sink, and then it wouldn’t let me group call with Rose’s sisters, either. Now it’s every call, everyone, every time.

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Here’s what happens: My device lights up with an alarming sound, like bi-bi-bi-bi-bi-bi-bip. Then comes the occult spot of ink on my vision that spreads like a migraine aura. I can’t move for the terror, and it swallows everything like an endlessly dilating pupil until I’m forced to disconnect. It started as just a fleck, a little sunspot accompanied by dread, but it grows bigger each time, and the feeling of it gets worse too, an antimatter of the heart. I used to be able to power through it, but now it’s hopeless: a full-scale Void.

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I don’t think Rose really believes in the Void, but she’s doing her best to be supportive. I’ve been doing the algotherapy course on my device and she helped me get on a six-month waitlist for a real person, which has made things easier between us lately, though I’m not convinced it will help with the Void. For one thing, when a therapist becomes available, how will they call me?

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Silverware clinks, a television murmurs from the next room we don’t have, and Rose looks sad and doesn’t say anything while I wash our real dishes. The water stays ruthlessly cold today, no matter how many times I turn the tap.

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Rose goes to the couch to set up for teaching her classes, and I stay in the bedroom listening to Hey Ya! (OutKast) Playing From the Overhead Speaker at a Panera Bread Curbside Takeaway With Parking Lot Noise, Shopping Carts, Distant Couple Arguing, hoping to make up some new characters in the environment to describe to Rose later on—a browbeaten assistant endlessly customizing their Smokehouse Goddess Flatbread order, or a man wearing flame pants who says OutKast is “such a great jam band.” I can always win her back over with my characters.

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But for some reason, the only thing I can think about is this painting, totally becoming a Thing. Lying on the mattress beneath our chandelier of spider plants and fairy lights, I go into my device and put Salvador Dalí Madonna into my Shoutworld.

The top Shoutback is from this guy I know—let’s call him “Pearl”—who lurks all day for any chance to dominate me with his intelligence. But it gets an endorsement from Ayumi Shekera, who is basically famous. Rose and I sometimes watch her eat enormous trays of cooked shellfish on the big display while we eat our own dinner, so I’m a little starstruck.

They both Shout the same suggestion: a painting called The Madonna of Port Lligat. I pull one out to the size of my display to look closely: There’s a woman on a blue field beneath a geometric archway, an infant hovering in her lap. I hardly have Rose’s incredible vocabulary for art, but I think the realistic sea creatures and Madonna’s lifelike face create a neat contrast with the surrealism: Her head is splitting open, and everything seems to be falling apart around her.

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I feel a dull certainty that this isn’t the one. There is no way I could have seen this image, even at lifelike scale, and thought: This is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen. It’s possible the surrealist Madonna I dreamed of doesn’t actually exist, either. I’ve read about this thing called the Mandela effect, where people are convinced by minor errata in their own memories, so this could be that.

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Apparently Dalí painted this Madonna of Port Lligat twice, once in 1949 and once in 1950. The second one is similar to the first one, but for some reason seems distinctly worse to me: grander, but also sadder in an implacable way. Madonna’s expression toward the baby is more ambiguous, maybe. I make a game out of looking at each Madonna of Port Lligat and trying to memorize the differences, but my memory is not what it was before. I start to forget which is the original and which is the other.

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In both of them the Madonna has a big empty window in her chest, and the little baby in her lap has one just like it.

During my afternoon anxiety nap, I find myself in the dream-Metropolitan again, the hypnotic parquet slipping by as I run around corners, glancing along walls. This time my body feels a little wrong, like the controller isn’t calibrated right, but it’s not totally unpleasant to float weightlessly up and clip along the ceiling and careen off walls. A sliver of fear grips me as I shoulder-check a priceless artwork and the textured canvas rasps my shoulder, but I’m not in trouble, no one cares.

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Looking for a Salvador Dalí Madonna, I swing wildly into a corner, and suddenly there it is: the painting. It’s so close this time I can see it perfectly, even touch it, and I feel divine joy, pressing my nose against the forbidden, darkly textured canvas. I begin to rub, moving my head side to side, ticktock, ticktock, until there comes an irksome machinelike clicking—

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I wake suddenly in pitch-dark with my earbuds still in, and the clicking is part of Mariah Carey—One Sweet Day Playing From a Fuzzy Car Radio (Light Rain Sounds With Windshield Wipers, ASMR Turn Signal Clicking). Usually I take my cue to put my earbuds in and anxiety-nap around 3 in the afternoon when the neighbor starts absolutely losing it at their kid about schoolwork, but now it feels late.

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When I take out my earbuds, I can still hear Rose’s soft teacher voice in the front room through the closed bedroom door. Lately it feels to me like her students have needed more and more of her time, but she always insists it’s the opposite, that she actually has more flexibility now that she teaches remotely. The only reason I feel like Rose has less time these days, she says, is because I have so much more.

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Before the Void, before everything, I wanted to do health care, like physically, hands-on. I like taking care of people, and it just feels like we’re in a time when someone with my issues needs a tangible certification or two, so I started studying radiology.

I got waitlisted for a course, and the wait turned out to be indefinite, I’m not sure whether because of the data breach or the Tenderloin Ebolavirus. After enough time passed, I ended up doing stripping at Leaderboards, and that’s how I met the guy we’re calling “Pearl.” He’s incomprehensibly rich, like I think he’s a literal rocket scientist or something, and the first time he picked me to go to VIP with him, I thought: Can’t believe I fooled him. It turned out he didn’t even want me to get undressed; he just wanted to talk to me for hours about his baby fetish.

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I should clarify: He wants to be a baby. After I quit the club, he kept paying me just to sit in his limo with him and look at things on his device, like listings for adult-size diapers and baby clothes on specialty sites, or progress shots of the hand-painted adult baby furniture he was ordering for his “playroom.”

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A few times I even went to his house to “babysit.” It’s one of those rich-people houses that looks like a glass-topped tomb, where every concrete slab has a smug ecological function. But in the middle of it all was this massive Victorian ghost nursery, with baby furniture and fluffy toys and wooden blocks, everything big enough for an adult-size man.

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It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, and I feel like everybody deserves to feel secure—like, hadn’t I kind of ended up doing health care? A couple times Pearl cried in my lap about how no one would ever understand him and how the world he wanted would never be possible, though he’d get weirdly mean after. He kept begging me to come back, even though I drew a hard line at the diaper roleplay. When we fell out of touch, I figured he must have found someone for that.

Tenderloin Ebolavirus probably put a huge damper on the adult-baby scene, because as soon as that all started going down, he started messaging me again. Anytime I want, he says, he’ll “surprise” me with an expensive device upgrade and one of those sound tables so that I can babysit him remotely, using spatial audio and private instances. The diapers will only be virtual. He sent me an image of the avatar he plans to use: a model of a large, terrifying baby wearing his strange and serious face.

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Rose has always been encouraging about my working relationship with Pearl, especially lately, since things have been so tough. She tells her colleagues that I’m a sex worker with a specialist niche related to care and collaboration who has been left financially vulnerable by the changing economics of intimacy. It makes her feel better, but I think it’s kind of a stretch.

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I can’t dance at all, so I only lasted about six shifts at Leaderboards, and Pearl never made me do anything more than hold him in my arms and talk to him in a relaxing baby voice. The way he’d cry and then berate me was as close as it felt to being paid for something “bad,” although being dunked on about my ethnicity and my life choices by a handsome adult man in plastic cartoon pullups doesn’t really sting.

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Rose says I exhibit a stubborn refusal to consider myself through the lens of an artist, and that if I become a virtual adult babysitter for Pearl and his rich friends, we’ll both be working in experience design. Someone in her department is doing a paper on the collaborative negotiation of a digital self-concept in the client-worker relationship, and she’s excited to be able to put me forward as a source.

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I’m mostly excited for the free device upgrade, but it doesn’t matter right now. The Void has put my pivot to virtual babysitting on hold, like everything else.

When I come out of the bedroom, I find the flooring in our little kitchen curled and wet. Rose is still cross-legged on the sofa wearing her headpiece and talking on her device, nodding in a vigorous, warm way. I try not to make any noise opening up the cabinet under the sink so I can tighten the loose cuff thing yet again. It keeps doing this, because I need to overcome the Void and call the University Housing Authority.

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“It’s so important to hold space for forgiveness in our process,” Rose is saying, and I know by her tone that it’s another one of her students needing a one-on-one. Rose’s students are currently making interactive works based on the religious iconography of millennial console games, which must be very emotionally challenging based on the amount of time she has to spend nurturing them through their projects.

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“It’s OK, it’s OK, you have plenty of time,” she tells the apparently distraught student softly, patiently. A mist of icy water brushes my knuckles as I try twisting the loose cuff in all kinds of directions to no effect, and I feel a twang of resentment.

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When she finally gets off her device, we order dinner from the University cafeteria. It’s usually a treat, but once in a while it arrives squashed in damp plastic, and tonight is one of those nights. Even cafe sound(in Japan), Kind Staffs, Good for studying, White noise, concentrate and destress, 2hours, one of our faves, hardly changes the tenor of the space, although I do my best.

“One of the staff members has been fired for not being kind,” I tell Rose. “He was creating a hostile work environment, and that’s not the vibe.”

Finally I get a little smile from her, my first since the arrival of our wet dinner. “You know, the painting doesn’t have to be one of my Things,” I try. “It can be one of our Things. I had another dream about it.”

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But even though she’s eaten, her reply is terse: “During your anxiety nap?”

One of those silences falls between us, punctuated only by the cafe sounds. “I bet the kind staff is talking about us in back,” I say, very quietly.

“Well, we don’t speak Japanese, so we’ll never know,” Rose sighs. She presses between her eyes with the heel of her hand and sighs, and I say it’s OK. We’ve had to learn to forgive each other quickly and quietly in here.

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“It would be good if one of us could call the UHA about that leak, though,” she says miserably, and I say, “Yeah,” and then we sit together for a while, the walls writhing with the white noise of other families at dinner. There’s the satisfying thud of a vending machine in the cafe, followed by the pinch and hiss of metal as someone opens a cold canned drink. I love that sound.

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“I looked up the Salvador Dalí Madonna, but it wasn’t the one,” I say after I can’t wait anymore. “Did he do any other Madonnas?”

“I think so,” she says. “I think it’s called the Sistine Madonna, but you should really ask Dr. Bepis.”

“Can we call her together? You do it and I’ll sit beside you?” I’ve had a hypothesis that this could trick the Void, although Rose would not like to hear me say something like that.

“Sure, after work,” she says agreeably, “but you have to promise me you’ll at least try to call about the sink afterward. When I’m pregnant you’ll have to do even more of that type of thing.”

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Of course she’s right, so I’m happy to agree, and we go to bed in a good place, listening to Cozy Cabin Porch With Heavy Rainstorm—Relaxing Rain Sounds for Sleeping, Studying & Relax 8 Hours. I don’t make up any characters for one like that, it’s just her and me alone.

But I have an even harder time falling asleep than usual, and it intrudes on me that Rose could help me call the UHA at any time. The Madonna of Port Lligat comes to mind, the window all the way to the horizon where her heart should be.

We wake to the gentle hum and sigh of a garbage truck outside, and the sun-warmed scent of it, too. Rose goes right to the couch to start work with her hair still wet from the shower, so I water all our plants and go to our room to continue the important work of researching this maybe-extant painting.

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I visit the biggest centralized art database I can find and put in Sistine Madonna, but all the results I get are by Raphael. There are also all these facts about the Renaissance, a time when probably none of the Madonnas had split-open heads. Raphael’s Madonna is not the one, but it’s strangely compelling anyway, and I find myself staring into the calm, dark eyes. I recognize myself, the way it looks like she loves the baby but is terrified of him just as much.

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The baby himself is large and languid, crossing his legs like a little man. With his serious eyes and petulant lips, I realize he reminds me of Pearl’s giant baby avatar, and this makes me laugh for the first time in a while.

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Someone on Shoutworld sent me a Dalí painting they think is called Madonna Sixtina, except it’s nothing like mine either: It’s a Madonna where neither of them have features of any kind, their shapes suggested by the white space left among vivid splashes of color. There’s a linked article on Dalí’s wife, Gala, apparently the model for his Madonnas, but when I try to read more it demands an inscrutable series of credentials.

I decide to search the Metropolitan directly for Dali Sistine Madonna, and to my surprise there is an update to the Virtual Museum Experience that makes my heart beat a little faster—these A.I.-generated hallways and graphically rendered exhibits feel more like my dream experience than even the real memory.

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We don’t have a headset, so I have to navigate on the display screen. The fact they’ve called the search function CURATOR’S DESK is cute and also makes me feel sorry for them at the same time. Yet there is a new and exciting result: a thumbnail-size image of an ear. In the graceful shadow of the cartilage I can see something that might be a face, a pair of distinctly Raphaelite eyes.

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This could be the one, and I press go, watching the virtual parquet whisk by, turning sage-walled virtual corners. As I fast-travel, just like in my dream, I thrill with how proud Rose will be that I interacted voluntarily with a virtual curator.

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In a corner I come upon an enormous, ornate frame, and in the frame is a blank white field with a stark red X etched across it. The little virtual placard beside it reads, Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

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I have never felt such hatred toward a virtual place, nor exited one so quickly. I need that Dr. Bepis; I need Rose. Instead of anxiety napping at 3 we’re supposed to make those calls, but when I come out to the front room at half-past, Rose is still on her device consoling some student struggling with the demands of the course, her hands cupping both her ears as if to shut out all else.

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Her hair is in a bizarre shape from drying in a ponytail, but she looks pale and somehow damp nonetheless. Then I realize the whole room is damp, with a massive water stain spreading across the kitchen from under the sink. Now there’s no way I’ll be able to glue the flooring back down myself, and it’s all the fault of Rose’s students for being so unprepared for this new reality!

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Rose looks apologetically at me, gesturing at her device, and I feel a stimulating new fury that drives me back into our room, where I slam the door, daring Rose’s delicate student to overhear me. I will face the fucking Void, I think, and I make a determined, flourishing move to contact Dr. Bepis on my device.

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Bi-bi-bi-bi-bi-bi-boom. Never has the Void appeared so starkly and suddenly, the center of my room suddenly falling away into Vantablack. The terror strikes so hard it feels like I’ll scream, but I can’t move at all, like in a nightmare where all I can do is watch the hungry lip of this terrifying Void inch closer and closer to where I’m clinging at the edge of our bed.

I don’t scream, but I throw my device away from me as hard as I can. It’s in a case so it doesn’t break when it goes through the bedroom door, but it does create an abrupt end to Rose’s third one-on-one of the day. “I guess that’s what you were going for,” she says.

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I’ll never forget the wedding where we met. It was in a field in the middle of nowhere, and the couple thought it would be fun to have all the guests ride bicycles papered in old-fashioned streamer for almost 2 miles through the tall grass in the dead of summer.

I can’t ride a bicycle even without all the tall grass and streamers and baking heat, so by the time I reached the venue I was not in a good place. When we got there, it turned out we all had to put together the centerpieces as an activity, which involved scooping hundreds of pastel jelly beans into jars. Because of the heat I ended up sticky and smelling head to toe like corn syrup before I’d even had a drink.

When I saw them rolling out a dance floor, I felt really sad for the couple, one of whom was my mom’s cousin. I didn’t think anyone was going to feel like dancing after the laborious setup, and sure enough, after enough lemon chicken and elderflower gin, a kind of glaze settled over all the guests, and party music played forlornly across an empty space.

Then came Rose to the center, all alone. That day she was saying to everyone there: I’m Rosie. Sunlight was playing in her hair, she had a streamer in each hand, and she just made it look so effortless, being the person who starts the dancing at a boring wedding. All the little kids were just drawn to her, they started running up to dance with her, and then one by one I saw their parents getting up too. Somebody’s toddler came barreling barefoot across the floor to her and leapt up, and she just caught the kid on her hip like a basketball, and I thought: I want to have children with her.

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Now I’m in bed in the dark listening to Earth Wind and Fire September Plays in the Dentist Reception With Soothing Switchboard ASMR, and Rose is out in the front room watching a movie on group call with her sisters. She did invite me to join, but when I heard their voices and stuck my head out, the Void was lurking there, pooling in the middle of the carpet like a saucer full of nothing.

We had a big fight earlier, but it was good, I think. Rose was able to admit she feels like she’d be less “conceptually stressed” if I were working for Pearl again, but I made things worse when I said, “Well, then we’ll both take care of babies all day.” She claimed she’d been just about to finish up with the student when I broke the door and traumatized them, but I don’t believe it.

I can hear her laughing with her sisters through the bedroom door. One of them is ridiculously wealthy, and tonight I asked Rose yet again why she can’t help us. It doesn’t work that way, she says, but I can’t understand why the sister never even offers. I check the ambient-space channel for something along the lines of Dragon’s Hoard of Coins, Cups, Clinking Through the Door of Locked Treasure Room (No Key), but for once there’s nothing that precisely suits.

Instead I listen to Gentle Thunderstorm Outside While Your Parents Watch the News Downstairs. My parents didn’t have a downstairs or watch news, but it still makes the waiting easier. When finally the bedroom door opens to a sliver of light with Rose’s shadow inside it, coming to bed, I feel a flood of tremendous relief.

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The next morning, our kitchen falls into the apartment below because of the water damage, leaving an unsettling ragged hole in the middle of the house. Luckily nobody in the building is hurt, but our rubber tree plant vanishes into the hole, never to be found.

We get approved to move to another unit in the same building that turns out to be identical in every respect to our old one, except the window is blocked by a wooden scaffold instead of a brick wall. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because if it weren’t for the University, we wouldn’t have anywhere to live at all.

I should clarify: I wouldn’t have anywhere to live, which became clear when Rose raised us moving in with the rich sister until I could get health care, and the sister basically said she would do anything for Rose, it would just be too weird having me there because I never joined the movie night, pretty much. Rose fought with her sister, and then she fought with me, too, which on that particular day was unfair.

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To apologize, she called that Dr. Bepis for me, so now we do have access to a version of Salvador Dali’s 1958 Madonna, sometimes called the Dalí Sistine Madonna or the Ear Madonna, that we can enlarge on the big display in our living room. Dr. Bepis said lots of Dalí’s paintings have idiosyncratic titles, and that this one’s actual name is Quasi-gray picture which, closely seen, is an abstract one; seen from 2 meters is the Sistine Madonna of Raphael; and from 15 meters is the ear of an angel measuring one meter and a half; which is painted with antimatter: therefore with pure energy.

“Are you going to be OK if it’s not what you thought,” she asks in her soft teacher voice, putting on Real 4K Museum Tour White Noise Ambience (Echoing Footsteps, Distant Murmurs, Security Guard Pacing and More) to set the tone of our experience.

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“Of course,” I say, and I believe it completely at the time. Rose looks so beautiful framed in the light of the big display, unaware of the tender expression she gets when she’s helping someone. This one’s for me, stupid students.

She even reads to me, from an article at the Salvador Dalí Society. “Dalí pays tribute to Raphael’s iconic painting The Sistine Madonna in the hidden image of the Madonna and child seen in the large ear that occupies the majority of the composition,” she says. Then, she puts the image itself on the big display.

Five things you can touch: my device, the plaster wall, our crocheted blanket, Rose’s hair, Rose’s hands.

Four things you can hear: the echo of footsteps on parquet. The murmur of distant voices, a security guard pacing, and my own heart.

Three things you can see: from far away, a newsprint ear. Up close, the Raphaelite eyes of a Madonna and child gazing back at me with sorrowful certainty. The black and white.

Two things you can smell: varnish and paint.

One thing you know: Rose will have children with someone, someday, but not me.

The Thing dislodges from my mind after that, and things do get nicer between me and Rose for a while. The Void begins to shrink to a manageable size so that I’m even able to join the sisters’ movie nights, at least sometimes. I’m mentally preparing to start working with Pearl in a few weeks. Having more money will definitely make things better, although I still hope that therapist calls.

We discover a new favorite ambient space, Cookout Music From Across the Summer Lawn (ASMR Sprinkler sound, running kids playing sound, birds songs), where Rose dances and I develop more characters, and I add in whole little stories around them. Generally, we both have more fun together now that I lean on her a little less.

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In the spring, they take the scaffold down outside our window, so that I can see all the way to the horizon. There’s something in my eye all the time now. Just a fleck.

Read a response essay by an expert on information science.

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And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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