By Todd Honeycutt
When Thatcher walked through the entry doors of the Howard T. Young Company building, he received the same greeting as usual.
“Here for a walking today, Mr. Thatcher?” the receptionist said.
“Sign in and I’ll let them know you’re here.”
He scribbled his name on the electronic pad and took a seat in a corner of the reception area. Aside from the receptionist, no one else was in the room. The décor was sleek—odd waves of overlapping steel and concrete and glass. Thatcher thought it’d be better decorated as a funeral parlor, with lush carpeting and wood panels and clusters of ferns and flowers. Staff dressed in dark colored suits instead of white lab coats.
He surveyed the room. Cameras, of course, but no guards, no guns. The doors weren’t locked. It’d be as simple as just walking out.
The door next to the receptionist opened. “Josh Thatcher?” He didn’t recognize the young tech in the doorway, but that wasn’t unusual.
Thatcher followed her down a corridor to the transfer area.
“Any problems or concerns today, Mr. Thatcher?”
The routine questions.
The tech looked at her tablet. “You’re walking Millicent Fields again, correct?”
“I find it interesting how some walkers want someone different every time, while some stay with the same people.”
“You ever walk?”
“Don’t have the capacity.”
“Not many of you who work here do,” Thatcher said. “There are too many unwelcome surprises with people I don’t know. With the same people, I know what I’m getting.”
“Hopefully there’ll be no surprises for you today, Mr. Thatcher.”
They arrived at a small transfer room, no larger than it needed to be. It held a recliner along one wall, a cabinet with three monitors, and a chair for the tech. A large screen on the wall showed a picturesque video of an ocean beach, waves rolling up, wisps of clouds in the sky.
“Please have a seat,” she said, pointing to the recliner.
Heather—he could finally read her name tag—offered him a small plastic cup and he tipped it back. He blanched at the antianxiety agent with its mild, medicinal taste. She attached a heart and pulse monitor to his left index finger, and inserted a cable to the port on his left wrist.
“Just relax, and I’ll be back in a few minutes,” the tech said and walked to the door.
“Heather?” he called out.
She stopped and turned. “Yes?”
“Do you know how many times I’ve done this?”
She looked at her tablet, swiped a few times. “Let’s see…you’ve worked with us for over three years…and we have a record of you coming in…147 times. 148 with this one.”
No wonder he felt the need to stop.
Just one more walk, and he’d be free. He thought of his cramped apartment, his cloying roommate, his friends who just didn’t see things his way anymore, his parents out in the hills. One more walk, he’d collect his payment, and leave all of this behind.
With a deep breath, he realized that he felt relaxed, peaceful.
The tech returned. “All set?”
“Sure,” he drawled, a slight smile on his face.
“I’ll upload Millicent.”
“She goes by Millie,” he said.
Thatcher felt Millie wash into him.
And Thatcher was no longer in control.
The odd thing about walking was how much like a high it was. You were in your body, had your mind, even wanted to talk or move, but what your body was saying and doing and feeling wasn’t under your control. A virtualized person had taken over, an upload of someone only made of ones and zeros and who needed to inhabit a real body every so often to keep from fragmenting.
Thatcher likened it to a dissociative fugue, a ‘devil made me do it’ kind of experience, where he wasn’t really himself.
Thatcher’s heart and chest expanded. Millie’s joy.
“How you doing, baby? Feeling alright?” Millie said aloud, softly.
A rhetorical question, as Thatcher couldn’t answer her directly.
Millie sat in the back gardens, wandering paths amid well-tended grass and flowers that flowed until the building’s grounds met a wooded boundary. The sound of trickling water came from a marble fountain nearby.
The key to making walking work was that the virtualized had to have their own sense of the world, and not any of the walker’s. Many people were screened out of the business because they couldn’t let go enough for the virtualized to have their own experience. Too much anxiety, too much emotion, too much baggage, and the virtualized couldn’t get what they needed.
Millie touched the concrete bench with her right hand. “This is so rough, so nice. You can’t imagine how difficult it is, not being able to feel anything as raw as this.”
Millie pressed her hand a little too hard into the concrete. But they were like that at first, not too controlled with their movements, not too sensitive.
Thatcher concentrated on relaxing. The warmth of the sun, the tickle of the breeze, the fragrance of the flowers that grew just behind the bench—those were the things Millie was taking in, and Thatcher let himself enjoy it, too. He liked these slow moments with walking, the focus on simple pleasures.
“I need to move a bit,” Millie said, “get used to you again.”
And as in a dream, Thatcher watched as Millie stood and walked the path, toward the back fence and the trees.
Millie ignored the people they passed. Few of the virtualized talked when they walked. Maybe they were able to chat with each other enough in their own world that they didn’t need to here, and instead needed other sensory experiences, like how things felt and tasted and smelled. How many times had Thatcher been walked in the rain, thoroughly soaked? Once, he’d been stripped of his clothes and tumbled naked through the grass until staff had corralled him back inside, the virtualized inhabitant yelling nonsense the whole time.
He sensed a shift in her, a tension in her shoulders.
She walked back toward the building, through the great glass door into the cafeteria. A dark-haired woman—Thatcher recognized her as a regular—hunkered over a cup of coffee, breathing deeply. Millie didn’t pause. She moved quickly through the archway, down the long corridor that ran straight through the building. She waved a hand in front of the scanner, pushed at the door. It stuck. Thatcher had done it a hundred times before; it should work. She scanned again. A click sounded. She pushed the door open.
“Mr. Thatcher?” the secretary said.
“It just didn’t take today,” Millie said. “Must have a blockage of some sort. I might be ill. Or something.”
“Should I call the…?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing.”
She walked out the front door.
“Nothing to it,” she said softly.
It felt to Thatcher that it shouldn’t be that easy.
She walked to a small black Honda in the lot with its windows down, and bent to peer in. A middle-aged man, bald, moustache. “That you, Millie?” he said.
“God, Ray, it’s good to see you,” she said, and jumped in the car.
Ray drove, checking the rear view and side mirrors several times.
“Why’d you have to break out with a man’s body?” he said.
“All that matters is that I’m out.” Millie buckled the seat belt. “You got the pills?”
Thatcher felt more anxiety now, unsure if it was coming from Millie or him.
The man pulled a small bottle from an inside jacket pocket.
The words on the bottle were hard to make out. Whatever it was, it was going to take a lot to keep Millie inside and him down, once the original meds wore off. She took a pill, forced it down with water from a bottle in the cup holder.
“How’s the plan?” Millie asked.
“Still working on it.”
“Damn it, Ray. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Thatcher felt a wave of anger pulsing through.
“Don’t freak out. I got it.”
“You just said you don’t.”
“I said I’m working on it. I didn’t say I don’t have a plan.” His knuckles were white as his hands gripped the wheel. His voice was low. “Still need a body.”
“Jesus, come on. You can’t even do this for me? After five years?”
“I can,” Ray said, measured and slow. “And I will. It’s just going to take a little more time. You think it’s easy finding a body?”
Millie took a deep breath and exhaled. Thatcher sensed Millie trying to control her anger.
Whatever the plan had been, it was different now.
“Sorry, baby. You’ll make it work. I know you will.”
“You have to call me ‘baby?'”
Millie laughed. “No, I don’t have to. Just want to.”
“I’ll get you fixed up. I promise.”
“Like your promise to walk me after I died?”
He hit the steering wheel with one hand. “Is that how it’s going to be? Not even five minutes, and you’re already starting in on me.”
“I’m anxious, is all.” A short pause. “I’m sorry. That’s not how it’s going to be.”
The doubt Thatcher felt was greater now. Ray drove a little recklessly, pushing his car ahead of the others on the road. Thatcher saw what Millie attended to, the buildings and cars and the people streaming by.
“It’s so fast!” Millie said, and laughed. “It’s good to be out.”
“It’s good to have you back. Even in that body.”
Millie held her arm out the window; Thatcher felt her thrill at the wind pushing against it. “Settle down, Thatcher. This is all going to work out.”
“That his name, Thatcher?”
“My name now, in a sense.”
Thatcher—and Millie—blacked out.
Flickers and flashes of dreams slipped into his mind, snippets of conversations and images of things far away. Nothing clear.
“A pill,” Millie croaked.
And he remembered where he was. Or rather, who was in him.
All Millie said she needed was a couple of hours. Enough time to meet with friends who had the tech to download her and whisk her off. Thatcher would walk away with enough cash to do what he wanted. He’d have plausible deniability, dismiss it as a body-jacking.
That wasn’t what was happening, though.
A voice from another room. “Can’t you both come up for air?”
“Just give it to me. You don’t know what it’s like being in here. In him. With him.” She turned on her side, pulled the covers tight.
“Probably no picnic for him, either.”
“A stupid kid is all.”
Thatcher felt like retching.
She coughed, held her stomach.
“I’m going to hurl,” she said.
Thatcher tried to vomit, hoping that by doing so, he could throw her out.
“Please,” she whispered.
Thatcher watched Ray push a pill into her mouth, bring a cup of water to her lips.
He felt Millie soothed.
He pushed out again.
Millie fought to quiet his body. A calm washed over him.
“Don’t work against this, Thatcher,” Millie said. “It’ll be over soon.”
The shock hit him that he couldn’t do anything about her.
Millie turned on the TV. The characters were familiar, but when he couldn’t recall their names, he chuckled.
The only sound in the room was the TV.
And he blacked out again.
He had brief moments when he was somewhat conscious. Shadows dancing among faint traces of light. Painful constrictions of the throat, only somewhat quenched by water. A terrible isolation, as he strained to speak but no sound came—just a groan uttered by the invader, a cry for more pills, a lightning strike in the bowels.
Each time he gained enough of himself to understand his situation, he pushed, trying to force her out.
And each time, she suppressed him.
He floated in his neighbor’s pool, alone, the dance of sunlight bouncing around and a breeze, gentle and cooling. His body, his self, suspended in the water, moving without purpose.
How Zen. He buried the urge to cry out and break the silence, as if standing on a mesa overlooking a vast stretch of desert and needing to reaffirm his place in the universe.
The body stirred. She was asleep, but waking.
She opened her eyes. A motel. Small room, cheap furniture. TV remote screwed to the table beside the bed. She yawned, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
“You in there, Thatcher?” she whispered.
A twinkling of elation in her.
“God, I’m so tired of taking those pills. You in there?”
He calmed the urge to push against her.
“I think he may be gone.”
She scratched her left arm, rubbed at the muscles.
“That can happen, when the owner just disappears.”
Ray called from the other side of the room. “Doesn’t matter if Thatcher’s gone or not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Got one for you.”
“You’ve been saying that for a week.”
“This time, we’re good.”
“Someone you’ll appreciate.”
“Sounds more like someone you’ll appreciate.” Millie sat up, stretched.
Ray lay on another bed next to the window, a magazine in his hand.
“This body’s not so bad,” she said. “We already have it, for one.” She walked over to the window, drew one of the curtains back.
“Believe me, you are due for a change.”
She squinted briefly from the bright sunlight then looked out. A few stories up, the view revealed highways and chain stores, strips of green and palm trees. It made him think of San Diego.
“Let’s see how I feel after breakfast. I’m craving eggs and coffee.”
They left the room. The name of the motel—the Sunset Inn—didn’t mean anything to Thatcher, but the posting in the elevator confirmed they were in San Diego.
They walked to a nearby café. More posh than the motel—the menu had free-range this and organic that. It wouldn’t take much, though, to be more posh.
The two were quiet during breakfast. Ray read the San Diego Union Tribune. Millie scanned the room, sizing people up, flitting from a man’s camouflage ball cap to a child’s dropping her sippy cup to a Ford hatchback screeching as it pulled up outside. The switching was dizzying to Thatcher. But was his attention span any different? Maybe it just seemed odd because he was the passenger, not in control.
“I feel good,” Millie said. Nothing remained on her plate. “And I still don’t feel him.”
“And you haven’t had any pills this morning?” Ray said, just above a whisper. He folded the section of the paper that he had been reading and set it neatly on a stack of the other sections bordering the edge of the table.
“Nothing since yesterday,” she said.
“Then let’s crossover.”
Cross the border, likely to one of the companies that had sprung up to cater to Americans too poor to afford services in their home country, or who wanted something beyond what the regulations would allow. Not a good plan, from Thatcher’s perspective.
Ray looked expectantly at her. Dull. Millie’s experience of him.
Millie looked away, out the café’s windows. “Seriously. What if I kept this body?”
The man laughed. “Why would you want to do that?”
“It’s as good a body as any. It’s young.”
“It’s a man’s body.”
“You’re a woman,” Ray said dismissively. “You need a woman’s body.”
Millie shrugged. “I might like to stay in here.”
“You’re going to need a Third World body. Someone who hasn’t been tracked and identified and marked and photographed to death. That body,” he pointed to her, “is hard to hide.”
Millie tapped her fingers on the table. “What if we moved south? Panama’s nice. Some place without much tracking. Might be a better alternative.”
Ray shook his head. “Even if we moved there, it’d only be a matter of time until you’d be scanned and picked up. It’s risky. Too risky. My plan is better. Our plan.”
“Your plan. I just wanted out.”
“I can’t live with you like that.” He made a sweeping motion with his hand.
“It’s been five years, Ray. I’ve been packed in a computer, living in a foreign body for an hour every two weeks and my mind racing around the rest of the time. I’m not who I was. Even if you put me in a different body, I wouldn’t be like I was.” Millie twisted her coffee cup on the table, making a subtle scraping sound. “And we wouldn’t be like we were.”
“We can build something else.”
Millie looked out the window.
“Don’t you love me anymore?”
Millie didn’t answer, and Thatcher thought, “No.” Several possibilities came to mind that were worse than any ending he had yet imagined. He listened for what Millie was feeling, and found sadness, loss, annoyance.
Thatcher fought to keep still, to keep his anxiety from rising.
“Yes. For what we had.”
Millie studied Ray, watched his face. Thatcher couldn’t read him, but he hoped Ray was feeling hurt, not anger.
“You see it, too,” Millie said. “I know you do. You’ve done this out of obligation. Regret about what happened. But it’s not going to work out well, not in any of our possible paths.”
“I think I liked you better when you were drugged,” he said.
Ray called to the waitress. “Check.” He leaned over the table. “Wait a day before you decide,” he said softly. “At least see the girl, try her out.”
“Sure, baby. Let’s do that.”
Millie was lying. Thatcher was sure of that. But less sure of what it meant for him.
“Tijuana bound,” Ray said, as they stowed their gear in the trunk of the car. “Finally.”
They headed south on the highway.
Thatcher wondered if he were lost now, just as she had said, and not able to come back. Even with this thought, he didn’t dare push out. He kept still. He listened for her emotion, but didn’t sense anything strong.
Ray turned on the radio, switched stations several times before settling on a talk radio station. He turned the volume up.
Millie didn’t say a thing, but Thatcher could feel her annoyance.
Thatcher did what he always did on a sunny day in a car with the windows down. He reached out to rest his right elbow out the window. Or at least attempted to.
He regretted it immediately and tried to dampen his mind.
Millie didn’t respond by putting her arm out. Instead, she scratched at her right elbow, hard, and kept rubbing for almost a minute.
They neared the border crossing, cars breaking in front of them. Ray slowed in response.
Thatcher thought of moving his left arm.
A delay before Millie rubbed her left arm the same way as earlier.
Thatcher tried to move both arms at the same time.
“Something’s wrong, Ray,” Millie said. She folded her arms across her chest, gripping both elbows as if she were afraid they’d fly off.
“The wait won’t be long.”
“No, not that. Damn it. My body doesn’t feel right.”
Thatcher continued to think about moving his arms while at the same time being still, to not be excited.
Millie turned to look in the back seat. “Where are the pills?”
“The bags are in the trunk. We’ll get them once we’re through. You can’t be drugged when we cross.”
Millie’s panic washed over Thatcher. But unlike other times, he didn’t feel the emotion personally. It was like watching a cheetah in a zoo, pacing along the walls of her cage.
He thought about shrugging his shoulders.
“Damn it, Ray, I’m itching all over. Stop the car!”
Millie opened the door. The car lurched as Ray slammed the brakes. Millie flung the door open and rushed out.
“Get in here,” Ray called out.
Millie ran to the back of the car and popped the trunk. “Your suitcase or mine?” she called.
“Has to be yours. I didn’t grab them.”
Millie unzipped her suitcase and rummaged through the items. “Jesus, I don’t remember packing them.”
Two short beeps of a car horn behind them.
“Get your bag and get in the back seat,” Ray yelled.
“I didn’t pack them.”
Thatcher concentrated on moving his neck, his legs, his arms.
“Maybe it’s in my bag,” Ray said.
Millie unzipped Ray’s suitcase and tossed clothes out, dumped the contents of the toiletry bag. Razor, deodorant, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste. No pill container.
“Get in the car.”
She grabbed both suitcases and jumped into the back seat.
“They’ve got to be here somewhere.”
Ray eased the car ahead, filling the space that had grown as the cars ahead of them moved forward.
Millie’s frantic movements unraveled the contents of the suitcase’s pockets.
Thatcher didn’t dare push out.
“You don’t even have any aspirin.”
“Why would I have aspirin?”
She grunted. “Jesus. Every part of my body feels like it’s falling off.”
“Must have left them at the hotel.”
“Why didn’t you get them?”
“Why didn’t you?” he yelled back. “Just hang tight and we’ll get something when we get across.”
“I’m losing control now, Ray. Now. Can’t you hear that?”
“Keep your voice down. We’re getting close.”
Millie closed her eyes and leaned her head back. Thatcher sensed her trying to calm herself, to work through her panic. He continued to think about moving his body.
“I’m ok,” Millie said aloud. “You hear that, Thatcher? I’m ok.”
Thatcher kept pushing, reaching.
“Of course you are,” Ray said. Then in a more pleading tone, “We’re here.”
“I’m ok,” Millie said again.
“Officer?” Ray said.
Millie opened her eyes. They were at the checkpoint. A border patrol officer peered in the driver’s window.
“Your friend?” The officer nodded to the back seat.
“That’s my buddy, Thatcher,” Ray said.
Thatcher reached out to move his arms, his shoulders, his feet.
Millie gritted her teeth and put her hands underneath her.
“Purpose of your trip?” the officer said.
“Pleasure. A day trip.”
Ray reached to the glove compartment and removed two documents.
At least Thatcher’s had to have been falsified.
Thatcher tried to kick his legs.
Millie let out a yelp and quickly suppressed it. She scratched at both her arms.
The officer looked over at Thatcher and raised an eyebrow. “Your friend not feeling well?”
“He just came down with something. Hoping to get medicine when we cross over. A lot cheaper over there, you know.”
The officer reviewed the passports and scanned the embedded chips. He handed the documents back after reading his monitor. “Head to the side over there,” he pointed to a queue of cars and a half dozen agents on the right.
“My friend’s in pain, officer. Any way that…?”
Ray thanked the man and pulled the car slowly ahead.
“Damn it, Ray,” Millie said in a forced whisper, “this isn’t working. He’s back. I need those pills.”
“Listen—we’re almost there. You just to need to chill until we get through. There’s nothing I can do, Millie.”
Thatcher pushed out now, a rage that trembled, trying to get his body back.
She grunted just as Ray pulled into the queue.
Ray turned around and whispered loudly. “You’re attracting attention.”
She screamed again. “He’s back, Ray. I’m going to be lost.”
“We’ll get you out of this,” Ray pleaded. “I don’t want to lose you again. Not when we’re so close.”
Thatcher pushed again, an explosion of wrath as if pulling down the columns of a temple. Millie yelled again, and the piercing sound captured the looks of all the officers in the area.
The people from the Howard T. Young Company arrived within hours. The border patrol staff said little to Thatcher during the wait. He and Ray were held in separate cells. Thatcher found himself slowly gaining control of his body. Not in a rush, as it usually did after a walking. His body ached, but only a fraction of what his head felt. The staff didn’t respond to his pleas for an aspirin.
He didn’t recognize the Company employees who sat at the interrogation room table. They introduced themselves—a manager and a tech—and asked a few informal questions: name, current location, day and time. The tech then jacked Thatcher directly into a small box. Thatcher watched the tech’s face, hoping to get a clue on what he was picking up.
The tech reviewed his screen. “Millie’s not in you anymore, is she?”
“Jesus, I hope not.”
The tech nodded. “Rough time with it?” He fished in his pocket and produced a foil packet. “These’ll take the edge off.”
The packet was unmarked; Thatcher felt two pills inside.
The manager placed a sheet of paper before him. She was older than the tech, more formal, higher on the food chain.
“A misunderstanding, Mr. Thatcher, one for which all of us at the Company are deeply sorry.” She cleared her throat. “We are happy to see you well.”
“I don’t know that I’m well. I feel like hell.”
“Take the pills,” the tech said. He slid a cup of water over to Thatcher.
“This happen a lot?” Thatcher asked, looking at the tech.
“No, not a lot.”
“You should have some sort of safeguards, keep these things from happening.”
The manager smiled slightly. “As I said, we are happy to see you well. We regret this situation. Below is an agreement, stating such, and offering you a small sum,” she pointed to a number in the third paragraph of the contract, “in exchange for your absolving us of any wrong doing.”
“Why would I sign this?”
The manager let out a short breath. “You’re not entirely innocent in this matter, are you, Mr. Thatcher?”
He didn’t respond.
“While we were looking for you, we had time to review certain threads. There was an offer, was there not, Mr. Thatcher?”
Thatcher broke eye contact with the manager. “It’s not like that…Millie is…was…a free person.”
“No one said she wasn’t. No one said you did anything wrong.” She placed a pen beside the paper. “Only, it’s not the Company’s fault, is it? That’s all you’re agreeing to here. And the Company recognizes the pain and anxiety you incurred, and so would like to compensate you.”
Thatcher tried to read the contract, but his brain scrambled the letters and numbers on the page.
“Sign it or not, this is it, right?” he said. “I can’t even read this, you know.”
“That’ll pass,” the tech said.
The manager stated the number on the sheet.
That seemed enough. More than he was supposed to get from Millie.
Thatcher scrawled his name on a line at the bottom of the page.
The manager placed the form in her briefcase.
“All the others as lucky as me?”
“Walkers?” the tech said. “Some.”
Then the manager corrected him. “Almost all.”
“Is she really dead?”
“She was already dead, Mr. Thatcher,” the manager said. “But the self that crossed over into you, that self has dissolved. Can’t stay in a body for long. At least, not with the body’s original self still inside.”
After the money had been transferred, he tried to make plans, but he found decisions hard. At night, he’d wake in a sweat, thinking of Millie, his arms itching.
He chalked it up to exhaustion. He’d get better.
When it didn’t, he called the tech.
“No,” he said, “there’s no way that she’s still in you.”
“Couldn’t some part of her be inside, tucked away? Like where I’d been when she was in control?”
A pause. “No. The readings were clear when I checked you. Why don’t you come in, though…have some tests run?”
Thatcher refused. No more tests.
He considered whether it was withdrawals from not walking anymore, because it had been a part of him for so long. Whether it was the fact that he faced a juncture where he needed to step off from everything he knew. Or whether it was Millie.
Europe didn’t hold the same appeal as it had, and he looked up other paths that would take him afield: Thailand, Argentina, even Panama. On a whim, he booked a flight to Belize, no plan other than getting off the plane.
The day before he was to leave, he surprised himself by looking her up. He didn’t find much that was interesting. Millie had been an executive of a company that he had never heard of. Oddly, she’d lived only two towns away from him. Car accident at age 41.
A little more digging, and he uncovered the cemetery where her body had been laid.
A short drive and a hundred doubts later, Thatcher found himself there, walking amid gravestones and burial plots. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been in a cemetery, but he was sure he didn’t think of it then as he did now, questioning who here was really dead, and who still lived on. Did it make sense to have a life memorialized when that life still existed?
He found Millie’s plot. A simple granite marker on the ground, the grass trimmed neatly around it.
Thatcher cursed her, apologized, said a prayer, wished her soul well.
And wondered if she’d always be inside him.
Todd Honeycutt resides in the wilds of New Jersey. He writes fiction in between conducting public policy research, civilizing two children, and brewing beer. This is his first published work of fiction.