The atomic magnetometer system decorated Iris’s neck, temple, and the span of her head, with electrodes on her skin that screamed bride of Einstein.
“Iris, nod once if you're ready. And please keep your activation word at the forefront.” Dr. Bravebird’s smile was uneven, as if the stacks of money backing this study were all weighing upon one side of her mouth.
Iris did the nod; even taking a moment to hesitate would then mean answering a series of desperate and urgent questions from Dr. Bravebird, as well as those posed by committee members through the intercom (long-winded versions of “But are you super-duper sure?”). She didn’t need the moment to hesitate, truly, because she was ready. She was confident in going forward, though unsure of where it led.
The colors of her event had been mixed with their complement, neutralized right there in the center console’s ashtray of her dad’s old Volvo 740. The silver flick-flickering of steel guardrails, the cinnamon dust horizon through the windshield – she could revisit each scene, allow the neuron connections to do paint by numbers, without her breathing increasing or any heart rate variation.
Iris had been practicing and perfecting it for at least a year. EMDR, polyvagal therapy, meditation and sensory deprivation floats, physical therapy. Physicists and trauma specialists through The Superposition Exploration Committee (SEC) had all individually shaken her hand, wheeled her into their respective rooms, and then introduced her to the looming, nightmarish figure in the back of her mind. Then, over and over, she'd heard its greatest hits.
Months and months of the talking and the remembering, until she’d looked down at her forearms and realized she had been wringing that trauma-snake’s neck long after it died, its venom dripping down her wrists. So, she’d let it go.
After the final session of EMDR, her SEC therapist had asked if she was excited to enter her event’s coordinates, excited for her quantum mechanical deliverance. Iris had said yes, but her mind knew better. She didn’t hate herself anymore, so why did she need their breakthrough experiment?
Maybe it was a sense of duty, an obligation to repay her moral debt to the SEC, that drove her to come to this nondescript government building and commit to a proper probing one last time. Consciously, she wondered. Consciously, she knew her activation word and was prepared to take that drive in her mind. But she’d had a dream about him recently, and in that dream, he’d said, “Iris, you’re talking to me again,” with only hopefulness. He’d been wearing the brightest blue t-shirt and matching sneakers. Azure.
“Iris, your prefrontal cortex is strobing a bit,” Dr. Bravebird said, oozing a jelly sandwich worth of patience. “If you’re having a distracting thought, please recapture your activation word and course correct. Thank you.” Her tone was understanding, of course, but tense. First warning.
The two women sat opposite one another in a corner office. The space masqueraded as a brunch-serving rest stop between Living, Laughing, and Loving. However, the room’s honey neutral tones were offset by the intense apparatus on a table in the center; it looked like it was part robot bride veil, part Medusa cranium. Such a presence, that atomic magnetometer system, with coils protruding from its helmet, and a chrome sleekness that led Iris to believe its skincare routine was more extensive than hers. It connected to Dr. Bravebird's laptop, which would allow her to pinpoint the coordinates of Iris's event, while the physicist sat and subscribed to the Hallmarky palatableness of the room (her hair bow matched one of the encouraging cats framed on the wall).
This room. Iris wasn’t sure if she’d potentially be walking out of it, or if it would disappear from her reality once she closed her eyes. She tried to muster hopefulness, but there was a blue-hued rock sitting in her stomach.
Looking at Dr. Bravebird one last time, as the nervously-encouraged expert tracked her neural activity, Iris admired the thirst inside of her. She wanted to be propelled forward by that kind of fortifying uphill longing – a curiosity that didn’t drain her but instead moved her to dig, plant, and pour into the earth. She promised herself silently that returning to that highway wouldn’t be about walking again, but about carrying something new to sow.
With the helmet whirring atop her head, she left both the room and the doctor as she shut her eyes and returned into herself (and to the day that was always one internal scream away).
The steering wheel of her dad’s 20-year-old pristine Volvo felt like holding her own hand. And the sights along the I-80 highway were familiar storybook characters, ones she didn’t welcome or deny. Sparse clouds, brown earth, the guardrails of course. She'd studied the tapes, read the script, and now she just needed to recite it and play it all back once more without feeling.
A man on the car radio said, “It’s eighty-two today in Lovelock, with a high of ninety-four, and Iris’s activation word is hole. Hole, hole, hole.”
Her skin slightly sticking to the velour driver’s seat, though the AC was blasting away, Iris sat erect and wide-eyed. The coffee had kicked in, yes, but she was always vigilant when borrowing her father’s bundle of joy on wheels. Though the interstate was pretty clear that morning, the possibility of an accident –
The plan was to get her dad’s car back to him after a weekend in Winnemucca. With a half tank of gas and the majority of her trip behind her, she was making great time. Gabe had said he wouldn’t expect her until lunchtime, telling her, “My dad is going to smell like the mines, but he’ll make a joke about women loving his Eau de Dirt cologne –”
“Iris.” Dr. Bravebird’s sweet voice came over the radio. “There’s more strobing. Just a friendly reminder that you're living the memory, not reacting to it or assessing it.” Second warning. "Any emotional responses will disrupt your journey leading up to the event."
Iris adjusted her sunglasses and smiled into the continued airstream. The open road that day wasn't about time passing, but about conquering pavement and distance for what was most meaningful to her. She felt connected to her choices when she drove (to meet Gabe -
A grey dot appeared. Maybe two miles ahead and stationary, on the right side of the highway. Iris peeled off her sunglasses and squinted against the light of day. Though it lacked a clear discernible shape, she still knew it was a car.
“You knew the second you saw it,” Gabe said from the passenger seat. He wore blue, and his seatbelt was buckled. His face wasn’t carrying its familiar apprehension, green eyes kindled by her acknowledgement and an easy optimism in his smile. “Keep your heart steady, Iris. I know this might feel scary to have me here. I've never been here before.”
Gabe remained in Iris's peripheral as they approached the grey dot – closer and closer until it showed its true form: a grey 4x4 pickup.
She tried to focus on the interstate and the impending vehicle, but Iris was all too aware that this was a hijacking. Instead of using a weapon for the hostile takeover, her subconsciousness was wielding something much more dangerous. Somehow, he had snuck back into her thoughts again, somehow the back gate had been left open.
"I'm not here to deter you," Gabe told her, an earnest pillow talk passenger. "Your anger comes and goes now, but it sifts away like sand. You let me in because you believe that I can love you whether or not your hands are clean."
What the hole?
The truck was coated in dusty neglect, the back left tire clearly flat. By the rear bumper, a tall and energized young man waved at Iris. Hands to and fro above his head, elbows jutted out. He yelled out to her, telling her he needed help.
“Sure he does,” said Gabe. “But not the kind you can provide. We know how this goes, right? This man and his buddy, who is hiding in a hole they dug behind the truck, will both steal your car and leave you with a concussion on the side of the road. That’s right, don’t react.”
Iris glanced at Gabe. He was chewing on his bottom lip, hands dancing in his lap. His hair wasn’t thinning, thick curly locks dropping over his brow. The youthful anticipation he exuded wrote love letters to her, telling of giggly dates in the back of the movie theater and flashlight walks at midnight that went on forever; she recognized the handwritten valentine in his exuberance, but she didn't blush or read between the lines. She wouldn't let herself.
“If you don't see the actual hole,” he said, “then it won't mark the moment that you make your choice. You know, when you decide if you'll keep driving because that big man-made hole makes you feel strange or if you'll pull over and offer some help."
Iris's foot on the gas endured as she drove past the young man trying to flag her down, right past his truck that had once sprouted fangs and sported blood-crazed eyes in a nightmare of hers from years ago.
Gabe kept talking. "That's it. You don't need to think about how those nightmares ripped you apart, ripped us apart. Just keep driving. When you get to your real event, your choice, the doctor is going to see it in your brain. And before you're aware of it, before the superposition can unravel, you'll follow the timeline you choose."
She continued along the dotted lines of her memory, not dressed in sweaty panic or nostalgia, or fear. In that car, with Gabe, Iris knew the snake was alive in her space, could identify it by its coiled readiness. It was capable of pain and penetration, but it would not strike as long as she remembered what was hers to carry. The achiness and the surrendering, both subconscious and conscious, would ambush any vehicle, any memory. But something reinforced her now. She knew she could hold what she needed to hold.
"You're going back to our house," Gabe told her. "The evening of the fundraising dinner and the night before our separation. I'll be there with you, Iris, but I'll be different. I don't want you to hurt, just want you to hear my words and know you're still in the driver's seat. I believe in you."
The pressure of her right foot on the pedal dissolved like an Etch a Sketch drawing. She traveled along her pothole-ridden timeline, through the friction of her brain injury and the commotion of static electricity. As her new reality found its shape, she remembered the resentment and shame that had become weight-bearing within her.
Iris sat in front of the mirror at her bathroom vanity, faced with a woman who said, "I'm fine," through gritted teeth. Wearing the necklace he'd given her, with its finger-like quills spreading warmth out over her chest, she was a woman who just wanted to navigate the story being told to her, wanted to remember when she last authored a chapter.
Gabe stood next to her. His mouth twisted as he spoke the chorus of his same pleading song. Arms way out, with his waist against the counter, he was in a standstill swan dive position; his eyes were on hers in the mirror, neither descending toward her nor recovering, just crashing again and again.
“You haven't really said anything to me all night," he said.
Iris detected the venom in her husband's words, in her own potential response, so she measured her breathing and watched him in the mirror. She tasted in her mouth that she had just brushed her teeth.
"Yeah," he sighed, chest dropping, "I think I'll stay at my parents' tonight."
Did she need to break their eye contact to reach out and touch his side, feel his shallow breathing, let him know that she didn't want to be the dangerous one in the room anymore? Yes, she probably -
This wasn't like the interstate. Iris had to maneuver through this museum exhibit of her past without emitting any heat or grazing the sensitive artifacts. If she could manage this, she wouldn't walk again, but she could hold and be held. And maybe she'd get her hands dirty while planting azure sage.
In his loosened white button-up, Gabe grabbed his tie from beside the bathroom sink and stepped toward the doorway. As a thought was occurring to him, he paused. Iris watched the back of his head in the mirror, hearing his brain run laps around his slow and deliberate breathing.
"You know, I don't think you need me. You don’t need me to help you into bed, don’t need me to complete you." The two glasses of wine he'd had that night gave his sadness more space to stretch out between words. "And I don’t want you to make me whole. I just want a full life with you, with all of the pieces; all of the times when I have too many stupid ideas or you have zero patience. It doesn't work when you hide yourself, when you think I can't handle you whole."
Gabe turned to look at her in the mirror, clearly yearning for just a little shove away from the ledge. And Iris felt in that moment that he was giving her the choice. She could let him go, allow him to find happiness away from the shrapnel that she rained down on his side of the bed. Or she could let him in, and they could possibly blow up together.
“I wasn’t there with you the day it all changed, but I’ve been with you every day since,” he said. “Your whole past, your whole future – I want to share it. Iris, are we nothing or can we be whole?”
She needed Gabe – this version of Gabe – to know the truth. Her prefrontal cortex might give her away, and Dr. Bravebird might pull her out, but if he could know it for a moment, then all of the months of preparation were worth it. If he could just know the truth: she had once lost herself in her grief, but she had never been lost when she was in a room with him.
Like the ocean running in and then out of her, Iris breathed and felt everything in her collapse. A sad and needful sob divorced itself from her as she clutched at her necklace. Her heart screamed out, her legs screamed out, and blood from her lip overpowered the toothpaste flavor. As if she were knee-deep in soil, just begging for something to grow, she brought rains and seasons and desperation – and she stared at him and committed to him that she didn’t want to be anywhere else, on any other timeline.
She said, honestly,