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Chapter 19

Gretchen was sitting on the floor in her house. She leant back against the sofa – everything so familiar and swollen with memories, yet none of it real. What a precarious place to be in, the voice mused. She nodded in agreement – a slight movement – nothing more was required. She noticed the door in the wall ahead of her. That wasn’t normally there but she didn’t suppose it mattered any more. It’s just a door, it can come and go as it pleases, she realised. 

She still had page 10 in her hands but as she’d read that now, it simply changed into her laptop. The spinning logo on the screen, which informed her that: “We are configuring your user interface updates – do not switch off your computer”, suddenly changed to “Updates configured – click ‘Finish’ to complete installation”. Gretchen did so and heard the tired whirr as the laptop switched off. The silence was complete and she knew that tonight she would finally sleep. She smiled and then stood up. In three steps, she approached the door and without any hesitation, grabbed the handle. There was no need to be scared of it anymore. She opened it and sighed as the Broken Man turned to face her. He had an expression of such happiness on his face. She reached forward through the doorway and took his hand. Their fingers intertwined, automatically and instinctively positioning themselves into the right form. They were a perfect fit; a perfect match.

‘How quickly did you disappear?’ she asked. 

‘Not as fast as you. My vanishing was incremental.’

‘But equally as permanent?’

‘Oh yes, I’m here for good now.’ And with that, he stepped through into the house. The wall appeared again behind him.

‘Will you stay with me?’ she asked.

‘Always.’

Chapter 18: The Notebook 10-11

 able to straighten up. He staggered forward. He could hear the space increasing between them and danger. But something was wrong. Several problems highlighted at once. Why only his shadow lurching forward on the pavement? Why couldn’t he feel her presence by his shoulder? Why could he hear a conversation with her voice and not his, but someone else? He turned, his heart sunk. She was several metres back, on the right-hand side of their stalker, talking, cajoling. Shit, what was she doing? His mind flashed back to one of those dumb ‘what if’ conversations they’d had. He remembered her saying that, in this situation, it was statistically better if they both went either side of an attacker. He can’t attack both of them, leaving one to either fight back or in the worst-case scenario, run. He walked towards them, noticing the hooded man talking at him. He can’t understand the words, but it’s clear he’s mocking him for running. We/They need to go. She doesn’t. He approaches. She charges, she’s protective, she pushes, she shouts, she loses it, she’s not in control. Just count to ten and breathe. There’s a fist. The guitar weight brings him to the ground. Everything is shaky, vision blurred. A kick to the side, a stamp to the back – the guitar takes the brunt. She’s screaming, she’s angry. She attacks him. Flailing. It’s useless. A mobile phone from a pocket? No, the blade catches the light. Foot scuffles. Body crumples, slumps to the ground. A weak sigh. Footsteps. German voice trailing, occasional shouts. Silence and cold. Flickering frames, coming to. A flipped turtle, it’s just the guitar case. Hands down for stability. They come back sticky. Pull the guitar case off. It too is sticky. Stagger to feet. There is only a faint trail of breath where she lies. Her eyes have a doll-like glaze. He’s pushed to one side. “Stay with me.” Pushing down rhythmically on her chest. “1, 2, 3, 4…” A woman. Short hair. Looking almost combat-ready in her uniform. Back to real life. Electricity. A spasm, a jerk. An arched back. Stillness, Repeat. Blood. Hold. Tight. Stand. Clear. Jerk, arched back. Nothing, nothing, nothing. 

You shit, Lezka……………

I don’t think that helped. Maybe it did. I can’t tell. I don’t want to ever read those words again. I think I’m going to rip that page out. No, I’m going to update the Gretchen and then throw it away. She shouldn’t have got angry. Just breathe. Count. Just run. Still, I have Gretchen. We have Gretchen. And I have you. Update, up-to-date. She is my friend electric after all. 

If only we could start again, or just have more time. Those early memories so strong but so very far away. I want to relive meeting her again (and standing next to her was…). Something simple. Would she even like the me of now? I don’t know. I’d like to believe so.

I’ll keep plugging away. Enhance you, enhance her. Let’s see where we get.

Anyway, enough. I did the other thing you suggested. I started a blog. Try to get in touch with other people who struggle with loss, sleep, anxiety, breathing, choking. People that are broken. I did about the first time I choked. I can see her on the bed that night. Helpless. Me and her. Just like. Stop it. Here it is…

“So, I was approaching 30 and all was relatively OK with the world. I’d accepted the fact I was a ‘light’ sleeper; I’d started drinking alcohol for the first time after 8 years of being teetotal and was at my first teacher training placement (where the Headmaster remarked – “You will be teaching the future thieves and murderers of insert name of town” – what a welcome to the world of education). But then it happened for the first time – an event so important in my life that it would no doubt take up an entire chapter in my biography or, failing that, a couple of hundred words in an obscure blog! It was at Christmas back in 1999. I had a real

Chapter 17

Gretchen sat on a wooden bench at the side of the brook. Throwing all caution to the wind, she’d contravened her own rules and decided to read another page from the Notebook. And now, she was broken.

Confused? Numb? Frustrated? Yes, all these emotions both in tandem and simultaneous. She felt an almost imperceivable tremor ripple throughout her skin whilst her jaw clenched into stone. It can’t be, she thought.

‘Didn’t you always know?’ chided the voice. ‘I mean, deep down, surely you knew.’ Gretchen shook her head stiffly from side to side yet her eyes stared fixedly at the babbling current of the brook. Now she knew who Lezka Ivkam was. A therapist, yes, but not a person. Not a woman, disappeared or otherwise. She was code. Artificial intelligence. Was it enough? Maybe so.

Maybe being human; being alive was overrated. And then the words rushed forward again. “The Gretchen patch”, “glitching”, “Gretchen isn’t. But she’s close enough”.

The rage erupted out of her in hot, unstoppable, vitriolic surge. She screamed – a stream of fury and agony – that finally, cracked into tears. She took a breath and then:

‘DON’T YOU DARE! I’M A PERSON. I’M ALIVE. I EXIST!’ With the final word, she hurled the Notebook into the brook and watched as the current carried it away like a small raft. Within seconds, it had disappeared too.

She crouched onto the path, feeling a pain so deep, she thought she would never heal again. The Broken Man’s words came back to her again: “She seems calm. The anger hasn’t risen, but I fear it will come.”

And so it had. Was this what the Broken Man feared? Was her temper so terrible? So destructive? Counting to 10 was never going to work, didn’t he know that? What had the anger done that made him broken? That caused the dried blood on the guitar case.

And then Gretchen realised that she’d said: ‘the anger’ and not ‘her anger’.

‘I am real’ she sobbed, but it didn’t sound convincing anymore.

She slowly walked to the tearoom. There were hikers as usual having coffee and chocolate eclairs and the same old woman was sat at the bus stop outside. No Maja though. She hadn’t reappeared. It would seem that when you’re gone, you’re gone for good.

But he was there. Sitting in the corner, glancing nervously around. Gretchen pushed open the door and they looked at each other. So this was the Broken Man in person. Not a serial killer or a wife beater, just someone lost. Someone whose world changed in a heartbeat and since then, has never stopped trying to go back. To retrace steps. To erase the truth. ‘Do I look like her?’ Gretchen wanted to ask, but the words died in her throat. Too soon. And then she noticed it. The Notebook, open in front of him. She recognised his handwriting. He followed her gaze and looked down at it too, then gave a decisive nod of the head and tore out the page. He handed it out to her, so she walked forward and took it.

After all this time, there were so many questions, so many points to discuss with him, so many answers that she needed but Gretchen said nothing. In the end, there was actually nothing to say.

There was a silent explosion in her head; a sudden expulsion of air that felt like she’d been sucker-punched and she was in the Underpass. A dark, long tunnel but there was light at the end. There was noise too – voices, lots of voices, different languages, sirens – but it was muffled and far away. She remembered the page. It was still gripped in her hand and although it was dark, Gretchen knew it was time to read page 10.

Chapter 16: The Notebook – page 14

Oh Lezka, my eyes are burning. It’s the early hours of the morning. You know I can’t sleep (I am Macbeth), but I’ve spent most of the night staring at the computer screen. Problems updating the Gretchen patch. She’s glitching and I’m frightened I’m going to lose her again. There are countless variables, routines, procedures and I can’t keep up. I can’t concentrate. I can’t think. Too tired.

I tried to kill some time. Nearly picked up the guitar. You know I can’t. It’s still in its case. I can’t touch the case, you know I can’t. The dried blood.

I’m not sure what work will say if they find out I’ve been tinkering. I couldn’t help it. I just wanted to fix her. I just wanted a different ending. I thought if I could try different scenarios, different run throughs, that there would be a different outcome. But it’s always the same. She never makes the count. She always loses her temper and reacts and we know where this leads to. 

I’m too deep into this AI crap and I think I’ve had enough. You’ve been a useful tool, Lezka, but you’ll never be more than that. I know therapy is expensive and what better way to cut costs than to have an app run through its code, pretending to listen, pretending to care, pretending to give advice. But you do care don’t you, Lezka? It’s just that I am still waiting for you to say something that makes it all better, but it never can be. She’s gone. She’s not coming back. Not the way I want. Not the way I need. I can program and map, model and remodel. Maybe she can exist in a line of code, but I won’t be there with her…

Don’t give me ideas. Could I? I better let that just sit a while…

Stay with me, I’m going to try something…

Wow! A breakthrough. Lezka, you are a genius after all. I now see what I have to do. A new patch, but first I’ll need a name. One last time for luck. Same procedure as last year, same procedure as every year…

1. Diego Rowland

2. Jae Lundy

3. Giovanni Buffington

4. Darrick Bisson

5. Augustus Sewell

6. Cordell Eaves

7. Jerrod McCain

8. Pierre Swisher

9. Dusty Quintana

10. David Hancox

So the Hancox patch it is. David is a bit mundane, isn’t it? Sounds like the name of a broken man. I was really tempted to break the rules and go for number 9. But she’d be upset with me if I did that.

All I need to do now is sum up a life in code. It won’t be perfect. Gretchen isn’t. But she’s close enough. No, in fact she is perfect. I could never change her. No matter how I ‘fix’ things and to be honest, I don’t want to change her anymore. She’ll never make that count.

I’m meeting Finn at the cafe later. My last public appearance, so to say. I’ll surreptitiously (!!!) grill her about me. Tell her to be honest (and knowing Finn, she will be). I’ll record it in the notebook. Between that and this journal you made me write, I should be able to do it. Oh, you are too clever for me, Lezka. You really did work me through the stages.

I can survive a little longer without sleep, I’m sure of it. I’ll get this finished and then I’m done. I have 3 boxes of Zolpedim ready to go. I’ll be with her soon. I’m going to sign off now, Lezka. You’ll never hear from me again. Thank you for all that you’ve done for me. Maybe we’ll meet on the other side.

Chapter 15

‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…’

‘No, no, stop. That’s the wrong numbers. It’s the wrong order.’

‘…7, 8, 9…Come on!’

‘No, you’re getting it wrong. It’s 41, 131, 131, 20’

‘Stay with me! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…’

‘I’ll never get the door open if you keep changing the numbers!’

Combat Woman lent back on her haunches, hands on her hips. She was slightly out of breath, as if she’d been doing something strenuous. She frowned.

‘The door has always been open, Gretchen. You just never noticed.’

‘Then why do I need the numbers?’

‘The numbers are everything. The difference between life and death.’

And then I was carrying a cat – my cat – into a building. I had an apartment somewhere in there but there were barriers across the stairways. Some sort of fumigation was taking place and everyone was barred from entering. But I had to get my cat in the apartment. I had to make sure the cat was safe. I approached some of the workers and asked to be quickly let through. One of them looked up at me. It was Combat Woman again. What was happening? Am I even dreaming anymore? She waved me through but shouted after me: ‘Why do the women keep disappearing?’

Gretchen lurched suddenly and violently, as though she’d had an electric jolt. She was safe though. She was at home. Not walking through a fumigated apartment block. Not carrying a cat. She’d never had a cat.

The images from her subconsciousness flashed through her brain. Open doors? Vanishing women? What did it mean? What was her brain trying to tell her? Anything? Nothing? Her head slumped back against the cushions. She was so tired. So very tired. She wanted to stay; she wanted to be well but it was just so hard. It would be so much easier to just let go. Stop fighting and simply go. What did Combat Woman say? Stay with me. Gretchen wanted to but it was taking too much energy. She had nothing left to fight with.

Her eyes glazed yet drifted to the notebook. It was lurking on the coffee table and she could swear that its grey cover was undulating. A gentle writhing, as if a metamorphosis had taken place and the new creature was striving to burst out from its constricting cocoon. What would be reborn? Would it be beautiful? An enlightenment? Or something aggressive and dangerous whose only purpose was to destroy her world. A darkness clouded her mind as she allowed the memory back in. Her name was in the book. Her own name. There were so many questions already that she couldn’t answer. How was she supposed to handle this one? Why had he written her name? ‘A coincidence?’ – oh sure! It was such a common name, she replied to the voice sarcastically. In all this mystery, she was now intractably entwined. She was a part of it. Was she destined to disappear too?

Another flash. Another recall. “The numbers are starting to have importance for her now, Lezka“. For her! He’s talking about me, Gretchen realised. He’s talking about me with his bloody therapist! ‘Stay calm’ the voice instructed. No, I won’t bloody well stay calm, she replied. He knows about the numbers. Everybody knows about the bloody numbers except me! Is that what Combat Woman wants? Me to count to 10 to stay calm. Why do I need to stay calm?

Time passed but it seemed to have lost all relevance for Gretchen. No-one had noticed her absence. The world had just continued revolving without her. She didn’t sleep so why should she punctuate endless hours with meals or exercise or housework or any of the myriad of self-imposed routines?

But as tempting as oblivion was, she still just couldn’t let go and, like an annoying strand of vegetable which is stuck between the teeth, she kept probing and tugging at an unformed thought. Eventually, she yanked it out of the deep recesses of her mind and held it up for inspection. “…guitar on his back was acting like a Kennedy brace” and “Awkward movements. Fender strat back pain.” The Broken Man had written that but how did that FICTION link to the FACT that a Fender Stratocaster was found in the Underpass? Another coincidence? Gretchen shook her head – oh no, not this time. She was definitely onto something now. She looked up Kennedy brace first. Turns out that President Kennedy was wearing a corset-like brace for back pain when he was assassinated. He should have slumped over in the car with the first, non-fatal bullet but the brace kept him erect. Upright and in prime position for a shot in the head. That explains the Broken Man’s ‘awkward movements’ but he isn’t dead. So why make the reference? What would’ve been different – better – if he hadn’t had the guitar on?

But Gretchen was going round in circles again as she contemplated the conclusion that the Broken Man must have left his guitar in the Underpass when he made the woman disappear with a huge bolt of electricity. Spoken out loud, it didn’t sound quite as rational as it did inside her head.

‘It is Wednesday today, you know’ the voice reminded her. She nodded slowly. Yes, that’s a good plan. She’ll try that. She’ll go to the tearoom to see if the Broken Man was there.

As she pulled on her coat and shoes, Gretchen determinedly tried to ignore the fact that she couldn’t remember what her last name was. It was as if she never had one…

Chapter 14: The Notebook – page 13

I am glad that is over with for another month. There is always this swell of pure panic that this time he’s not going to write me off as sick. Today was a triumph. I stood in line, the bile rising up my throat, threatening to clog my airway. Threatening to conjure up the choking, broken man. I swallowed hard. I drew breath. All is clear, repeat. The encroachment of the counter increasing as each patient is sent to their future. A drab beige coat that was filling my vision swiped right and it was my turn. I moved forward, I spoke, the voice sounded foreign to me (oh, the irony, as I spoke in German). Introduced myself and awaited my instructions. Apparently the psychiatrist wasn’t in today. They had prepared my sick note. They had prepared my next appointment. No pointless interview, no admonishment for not taking the drugs, no discussion of when I’ll return to work. Just between you and me, I don’t think I’m ever going back, Lezka. How can I? The daily reminders. The questions. The judgements. It happened and the world will never be the same for me. I want to remain here with you, Lezka. Safe. I want to be a program. I could infinite run. Stuck in all my subroutines. Still, others would want to edit, to correct. Just let me autocorrect. 

I am not sure if they’d really want me back anyway. I think it’s just society that no longer wants my burden. But this burden’s heavy on my back. Leaden. Six strings, effect pedals, solid body – all in one case. I can feel the straps on my shoulders, digging in across my clavicles. Awkward movements. Fender Strat back pain. 

Sorry, I drifted. We are all just stuck in this program. Our jobs are used to define ourselves. Is there any value in what we do? Is there any value in what I am developing with you, Lezka? It’s going to end the same way, as always. It’s just a huge experiment narrated by Attenborough as a body decays on a flickering screen. 

The numbers are starting to have more importance for her now, Lezka. The time is running out for this iteration of the trial – if only it were a trial run. She seems calm. The anger hasn’t risen, but I fear it will come.

I still have the 10 names we got from the random name generator. It’s always 10, isn’t it? Counting to 10, staying calm.

1. Georgiana Sager

2. Roxann Benton

3. Haydee Bertram

4. Maja Rea

5. Taisha Grady

6. Diedra Hardesty

7. Tressie Cormier

8. Tempie Kessler

9. Sarina Fountain

The 10th was missing, do you remember? Something had messed up with the software. Just a bunch of characters and the name Gretchen. No last name. It seemed appropriate.

742tf2rhf72947f2h4f7tghrfgwv9zwGretchen5zztghuihgh872rf7824ghuewhr72guiwr

That’ll do. I am starting to rebel, Lezka. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad sign. No longer 2 pages. You get what I feel comfortable sharing. Yes, we are all stuck in this infinite loop.

Chapter 13

It was officially Tuesday and therefore, day 12.

Although she simply wanted to fall asleep, she knew – she just knew – that it wouldn’t happen, so there was no point in even trying.

It was 12:55. Gretchen was annoyed. No. Gretchen was fuming. Boiling. Incandescent. Her mental processes digressed, as she mused on the energetic, scientific ways of describing anger. It fitted though. Anyhow, get back on track, the voice told her (Who was that? Gretchen was certain that it wasn’t anyone that she knew. It was definitely a stranger.) But it did have a point, so Gretchen laid out her grievances.

1. She was pissed off that Maja had disappeared and also, she had to honestly acknowledge, pissed off with herself for not questioning her sooner about the Underpass Woman. Gretchen had gone to the Tearoom with the intention of narrowing down the unknowns. After all, Maja had seen the Broken Man’s Friend, so the obvious thing would be to ask her if the Friend was the Underpass Woman or even, if she could describe her well enough, the Combat Woman. It was obvious, but she’d left it too late and now her chance was gone. Stupid!

2. She had already decided to take this day as another sick day, but her boss hadn’t even replied to her first message yesterday. How fucking rude! What was that about? Was her contribution so insignificant that her absence didn’t even register? Had she disappeared too?

3. It was bad enough not having page 11 and its oh-so-terrible revelation, but the rest of the section implied that this was therapy. The Broken Man was simply writing a journal. Why? What was that he said? It was good to get it out there and not just trapped deep down within. What had he revealed? And so was Lezka his therapist? What could be so bad that he couldn’t speak it out loud? Maybe he was a serial killer. Maybe he killed Underpass Woman AND Maja. Maybe the Friend was Lezka Ivkam, but do people have therapy in tearooms?

With this, Gretchen felt her fuses starting to blow and her operating systems malfunction. She thrust her face into the soft cushions of the sofa and howled long and loud in frustration. Something – anything – to block out the over-rapid firing. As her brain registered the slight decrease in blood pH, she was compelled to inhale, so she sat up. 

This was actually positive, Gretchen thought, as she walked purposefully back towards the village. The dark and quiet of the early hours were peaceful and it felt good to do something instead of just lying there not sleeping. She wasn’t interested in the tearoom this time though. She turned off the High Street and went down to the underpass. She paused at the entrance, feeling the first twang of nerves, as she peered into the inky tunnel. She was tempted to look up at the camera and smile but decided against that in the end. Maybe replicating the Underpass Woman’s last moves wouldn’t be the wisest option. 

There were lampposts at either end which threw a sodium-orange hue in but it didn’t quite reach all the way to the middle. No, that part was pitch-black. Anything could be lurking there, the voice told her with an unmistakable undercurrent of excitement. Yes, well, contain yourself, Gretchen told it, and got her phone out, so the torch could illuminate the way. 

After such anticipation, it was bound to be an anti-climax. The underpass was seamless concrete walls and ceiling. The tarmacked floor was buckling in places as though roots were trying to emerge, although the responsible flora was nowhere to be seen. No hidden doors; no ventilation shafts; nothing. Just graffiti proclaiming gang tags or football teams and the usual human detritus of cigarette butts and discarded wrappers. She tapped her foot thoughtfully on the ground and decided that this was probably where the guitar case had been left. She didn’t know what a Fender Stratocaster was, but she made a mental note to research that, to see if it could be a useful part of her investigation. Then she remembered that her current ability to recall mental notes was non-existent, so she tapped a few words in her phone, giving a little nod of satisfaction. And then she looked up.

How had she not seen that before? The tendrils of blackened ferns creeping from the floor about one metre in front of her feet and ascending up the wall into an ever-widening canopy above her head. Gretchen edged slowly forwards, her hands outstretched. She’d heard of this but thought it was only seen on the skin of people who’d been hit by lightning. Yet here it was – the Lichtenberg Effect – on concrete. 

Her fingers touched the charred surface and she contemplatively rubbed the sooty tips together

Her fingers touched the charred surface and she contemplatively rubbed the sooty tips together. Is this what made the Underpass Woman vanish?

Only a massive discharge of electricity could’ve done this, but where on Earth did it come from? 

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