She is too young to understand many of the terms he uses, but she is clear about the essence of his claim and senses that he speaks the truth.
Her father knows about needles. He is a doctor.
‘Should I go get a needle, Sugarpie?’
She is too afraid to speak.
Needles scare her.
He knows that needles scare her.
He knows how to use needles, and he knows how to use fear.
Did he kill her mother with a needle? He is still stroking her hair.
‘A big sharp needle?’ he asks.
She is shaking, unable to speak.
‘Big shiny needle, stick it in your tummy?’ he says.
‘No needle, Sugarpie?’
‘Then you’ll have to do what I want.’ He stops stroking her hair.
His gray eyes suddenly seem radiant, glimmering with a cold flame. This is probably just a reflection of the lamplight, but his eyes resemble the eyes of a robot in a scary movie, as though there is a machine inside of him, a machine running out of control.
His hand moves down to her pajama tops. He eases open the first button.
‘No,’ she says. ‘No. Don’t touch me.’
‘Yes, honey. This is what I want.’ She bites his hand.
The motorized recliner reconfigured itself much like a hospital bed to match the position that Susan occupied in the virtual-reality world, helping to reinforce the therapeutic scenario that she was experiencing. Her legs were straight out in front of her, but she was sitting up.
Her deep anxiety even desperation was evident in her quick, shallow breathing.
‘No. No. Don’t touch me,’ she said, and her voice was somehow resolute even though it quivered with fear.
When she was six, all those freighted years ago, she had never been able to resist him. Confusion had made her uncertain and timid, for his needs were as mysterious to her then as the intricacies of molecular biology would be mysterious to her now. Abject fear and a terrible sense of helplessness had made her obedient. And shame. Shame, as heavy as a mantle of iron, had crushed her into bleak resignation, and having no ability to resist, she had settled for endurance.
Now, in the intricately realized virtual-reality ver¬sions of these incidents of abuse, she was a child again but equipped with the understanding of an adult and the hard-won strength that came from thirty years of toughening experience and grueling self-analysis.
‘No, Daddy, no. Don’t ever, don’t ever, don’t you ever touch me again,’ she said to a father long dead in the real world but still a living demon in memory and in the electronic world of the virtually real.
Her skill as an animator and a VR-scenario designer made the re-created moments of her past so dimensional and textured so real that saying no to this phantom father was emotionally satisfying and psychologically healing. A year and a half of this had purged her of so much irrational shame.
How much better it would have been, of course, actually to travel through time, actually to be a child again, and refuse him for real, to prevent the abuse before it happened, then to grow up with self-respect, untouched. But time travel did not exist except in this approximation on the virtual plane.
‘No, never, never,’ she said.
Her voice was neither that of a six-year-old girl nor quite the familiar voice of the adult Susan, but a snarl as dangerous as that of a panther.
‘Noooooo,’ she said again and slashed at the air with the hooked fingers of one gloved hand.
He reels back from her in shock, bolting up from the edge of the bed, holding one hand to his startled face where she clawed at him.
She hasn’t drawn blood. Nevertheless, he is stunned by her rebellion.
She was trying to slash at his right eye but only scratched his cheek.
His gray eyes are wide: previously cold and alien robot orbs of radiant menace, even stranger now, but not quite as frightening as they were before. Something new colors them. Caution. Surprise. Maybe even a little fear.
Young Susan presses her back against the headboard and glares defiantly at her father.
He stands so tall. Looming.
She fumbles nervously with the neck of her Pooh pajamas, trying to re-button it.
Her hand is so small. She is often surprised to find herself in the body of a child, but these brief moments of disorientation do not diminish the sense of reality that informs the VR experience.
She slips the button through the buttonhole.
The silence between her and her father is louder than a scream.
How he looms. Looms.
Sometimes it ends here. Other times. . . . . . he will not be so easily turned away.
She has not (trawl: blood. Sometimes site does.
At last he leaves the room, slamming the door behind him so hard that the windowpanes rattle.
Susan sits alone, shaking partly with fear and partly with triumph.
Gradually the scene fades into blackness.
She has not drawn blood.
Maybe the next time.
She remained on the motorized recliner in the master-bedroom retreat, ensconced in the VR gear, for more than another half hour, responding to and surviv¬ing threats of violence and rape made by a man long dead.
Of the uncountable assaults that young Susan had suffered at the hands of her father between the ages of five and seventeen, this elaborate therapy program included twenty-two scenes, all of which she had recalled and animated in excruciating detail. Like the numerous possible plot flows of a CD-ROM game, each of these scenes could progress in a multitude of ways, determined not only by the things Susan chose to say and do in each session but by a random-plotting capability designed into the program. Consequently, she never quite knew what was coming next.
She had even written and animated a hideous sequence in which her father reacted with such vicious fury to her resistance that he murdered her. Stabbed her repeatedly.
Thus far, during eighteen months of this self-admin¬istered therapy, Susan had not found herself trapped in that mortal scenario. She dreaded encountering it and hoped to finish her therapy soon, before the program’s random-plotting feature plunged her into that particular nightmare.
Dying in the VR world would not result, of course, in her death in the real world. Only in witless movies were events in the virtual world able to have a material influence in the real world.
Nevertheless, animating that bloody sequence had been one of the most difficult things that she’d ever done and experiencing it three-dimensionally, not as a VR designer but from within the scenario, was certain to be emotionally devastating. Indeed, she had no way of predicting how profound the psychological impact might be.
Without such an element of risk, however, this therapy would have been less effective. In each ses¬sion, living in the virtual world, she needed to believe that the threat her father posed was fearfully real and that terrible things might indeed happen to her. Her resistance to him would have moral weight and emotional value only if she genuinely believed, during the session, that denying him could have terrible consequences.
Now the motorized recliner reconfigured itself until Susan was standing upright, held against the vertical leather pad by the harness.
She moved her feet. The upholstered rollers on the walking pad allowed her to simulate movement.
In the virtual world, a younger Susan child or adolescent was either advancing on her father or determinedly backing away from him.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Stay away. No.’
She looked so achingly vulnerable in the VR gear, temporarily blind and deaf to the real world, sensing only the virtual plane, restrained by the harness.
So vulnerable. Still struggling courageously to over¬come the past, alone in her great house with only the ghosts of days gone by to keep her company.
After lunch, Susan sat on the master-bedroom bal¬cony, in the summer sun, reading a novel by Annie Proulx.
She wore white shorts and a blue halter top. Her legs were tan and smooth. Her skin appeared radiant with captured sunlight.
She sipped lemonade from a cut-crystal glass.
Gradually the shadows of a phoenix palm crept across Susan, as if seeking to embrace her.
A faint breeze caressed her neck and languorously combed her golden hair.
The day itself seemed to love her.
A Sony Discman played Chris Isaak CDs while she read. Forever Blue. Heart-Shaped World. San Francisco Days. Sometimes she put the book aside to concentrate on the music.
Her legs were tan and smooth.
Then the household staff and the gardeners left for the day.
She was alone again. Alone. At least she believed that she was alone again.
After taking a long shower and brushing her damp hair, she put on a sapphire-blue silk robe and went to the retreat adjacent to the master bedroom.
In the center of this small room stood a custom-designed black leather recliner. To the left of the recliner was a computer on a wheeled stand.
From a closet, Susan removed VR virtual reality gear of her own design: a lightweight ventilated helmet with hinged goggles and a pair of supple elbow-length gloves, both wired to a nerve-impulse processor.
The motorized recliner was currently configured as an armchair. She sat and engaged a harness, much like that in an automobile: one strap fitting securely across her abdomen, another running diagonally from her left shoulder to her right hip.
Temporarily, she held the VR equipment in her lap. Her feet rested on a series of upholstered rollers that attached to the base of the chair, positioned similarly to the footplate on a beautician’s chair. This was the walking pad, which would allow her to simulate walking when the VR scenario required it.
She switched on the computer and loaded a program labeled Therapy, which she herself had created.
This was not a game. It was not an industrial training program or an educational tool, either. It was precisely what it claimed to be. Therapy. And it was better than anything that any disciple of Freud could have done for her.
She had devised a revolutionary new use for VR technology, and one day she might even patent and market the application. For the lime being, however, Therapy was for her use only.
First she plugged the yR gear into a jack on an interfacing device already connected to the computer, and then she put on the helmet. The goggles were flipped up, away from her eyes.
She pulled on the gloves and flexed her fingers.
The computer screen offered several options. Using the mouse, she clicked on Begin.
Turning away from the computer, leaning back in the recliner, Susan flipped down the goggles, which fit snugly to her eye sockets. The lenses were in fact a pair of miniature, matched, high-definition video displays.
She is surrounded by a soothing blue light that gradually grows darker until all is black.
To match the unfolding scenario in the VR world, the motorized recliner hummed and reconfigured 111 to a bed, parallel to the floor.
Susan was now lying on her back. Her arms were crossed on her chest, and her hands were fisted.
In the blackness, one point of light appears: a soft yellow and blue glow. On the far side of the room. Lower than the bed, near the floor. It resolves into a Donald Duck night light plugged in a wall outlet.
In the retreat adjacent to her bedroom, strapped to the recliner and encumbered with the VR gear, Susan appeared oblivious to the real world. She murmured as though she were a sleeping child. But this was a sleep filled with tension and threatening shadows.
A door opens.
From the upstairs hallway, a wedge of light pries into the bedroom, waking her. With a gasp, she sits up in bed, and the covers fall away from her, as a cool draft ruffles her hair.
She looks down at her arms, at her small hands, and she is six years old, wearing her favorite Pooh Bear pajamas. They are flannel-soft against her skin.
On one level of consciousness, Susan knows that this is merely a realistically animated scenario that she has created actually re-created from memory and with which she can interact in three dimensions through the magic of virtual reality. On another level, however, it seems real to her, and she is able to lose herself in the unfolding drama.
Back lighted in the doorway is a tall man with broad shoulders.
Susan’s heart races. Her mouth is dry.
Rubbing her sleep-matted eyes, she feigns illness: 'I don’t feel so good.’
Without a word, he closes the door and crosses the room in the darkness.
As he approaches, young Susan begins to tremble. He sits on the edge of the bed. The mattress sags, and the springs creak under him. He is a big man.
His cologne smells of lime and spices.
He is breathing slowly, deeply, as though relishing the little-girl smell of her, the sleepy-middle-of the-night smell of her.
‘I have the flu,’ she says in a pathetic attempt to turn him away.
He switches on the bedside lamp.
‘Real bad flu,’ she says.
He is only forty years old but graying at the temples. His eyes are gray, too, clear gray and so cold that when she meets his gaze, her trembling becomes a terrible shudder.
‘My tummy aches,’ she lies.
Putting one hand to Susan’s head, ignoring her pleas of illness, he smooths her sleep-rumpled hair.
‘I don’t want to do this,’ she says.
She spoke those words not merely in the virtual world but in the real one. Her voice was small, fragile, although not that of a child.
When she had been a girl, she’d been unable to say no.
Fear of resisting had gradually become a habit of submitting.
But this was a chance to undo the past. This was therapy, a program of virtual experience, which she had designed for herself and which had proved to be remarkably effective.
‘Daddy, I don’t want to do this,’ she says.
‘You’ll like it.’
‘But I don ‘t like IL ‘in time you will.’
‘I won’t. I never will.’
‘You’ll be surprised.’
‘This is what 1 want,’ he insists.
They are alone in the house at night. The day staff is off duty at this hour, and after dinner the live-in couple keep to their apartment over the pool house unless summoned to the main residence.
Susan’s mother has been dead more than a year.
She misses her mother so much.
Now, in this motherless world, Susan’s father strokes her hair and says, ‘This is what I want.’
‘I’ll tell,’ she says, trying to shrink away from him.
‘If you try to tell, I’ll have to make sure no one can ever hear you, ever again. Do you understand, Sweetheart? I’ll have to kill you,’ he says not in a menacing way but in a voice still soft and hoarse with perverse desire.
Susan is convinced of his sincerity by the quietness with which he makes the threat and by the apparently genuine sadness in his eyes at the prospect of having to murder her.