The job in the North was a good job for what it was. I was not excited about it, but I was satisfied because it would take me away from the city where I had lived with Paul, and where every drugstore and bar and credit center was heavy with the memory of him.
The job wasn’t high-ranking or well-paid, and the main question the hiring manager asked me was, “Are you okay with travel?”
Everybody in the company split time between at least two district offices, sometimes thousands of miles apart. Mine would be Fairbanks and Sitka, a small city on the Gulf of Alaska. I’d commute between the two every day.
“I love traveling,” I said.
The truth was that I hadn’t traveled much—when I was with Paul I’d had one of the rare remaining jobs that was based in a single city—but I’d never been nervous about teleporting the way some people are. Paul used to say that it seemed immoral, how you could get from one place to another so easily, without even walking. And some people were scared of it, like flying—you could get hypnotherapy to make you more comfortable with the idea. But all the early skeptics now said teleporting was safe. One of them even did commercials for a teleporter company, talking about how he’d come around.
And I’d always liked the ritual of it: taking off my clothes in the little cubicle, loading them with my bag into the luggage bin, lying down in the chamber itself, and letting the lid close over me, snug and cool as a layer of water. I didn’t even mind the warnings that came over the intercom, that although no human had ever been seriously injured, we should know and accept that our bodies would be disassembled and reassembled somewhere else. We would be identical in every respect, but anyone with a religious or other objection should press the call button to be released from the teleportation chamber immediately. I never objected. Everyone always said you couldn’t feel it, but I swear there was always a moment when I could sense my body coming apart, when for a split second it felt like anything could happen. I could go anywhere, be anyone. I always left the teleporter feeling like a power had been placed in my hands for just a second, then snatched away.
On my first day, my new boss introduced me to everyone in the Fairbanks office. She drew all the eyes in the room, and not just because she was in charge. With her lush black hair, and her lush body under an expensive dress, she was the kind of woman I was always worried Paul liked better than me. And then, to see him having lunch at a restaurant near my office with a woman who could have been my sister, small and short-haired—I could even see her unpainted, squared-off nails before he put his hand over hers and his mouth on her mouth—I knew then that I was completely replaceable. Even someone almost the same as me was better than me. I did the only thing I could do to claw back any dignity—I took the day off and moved everything of mine out of our apartment, while he was still out, probably with her, and then I never called him or returned any of his calls. I haven’t spoken to him since.
I could go anywhere, be anyone. I always left the teleporter feeling like a power had been placed in my hands for just a second, then snatched away.
My new job turned out to be almost exactly the same as my old job, just with longer hours, because doing analysis in two places was more complicated than doing it in one. After my first day everyone ignored me, except for my boss. She continued to send me my numbers at the end of each day, without comment if I met or exceeded my targets, and “let’s do better!” when I came up short.
I worked in Fairbanks in the mornings and Sitka in the afternoons. Most days I got off around 8pm and had dinner somewhere near the office before getting back into the teleporter. Every restaurant in the North seemed to serve the same open-faced sandwich, slices of dark bread with a kind of smoked white fish that was not as good as salmon. I ate by myself in a bar in Sitka while I read the news on my handheld. Sometimes I went out walking afterwards—I had not been prepared for the brightness, the way the sky looked like neither day nor night but like some hot metal hammered above the world. The light, too, was alien and metallic, casting the faces of people on the street in a bluish sheen, as if I might see the gears turning behind their eyes if I looked too closely.
When I finished walking, I’d go lie down in the teleportation center in Sitka and get up in the one in Fairbanks. The Fairbanks terminal was bigger and fancier, with ads on the walls for government-sponsored walking and pottery groups. “Loneliness is just as unhealthy as smoking,” read one. A lone protester was usually stationed nearby, a man with a sign that read, “Fight Forced Transience! Teleporters Destroyed Our Homes.” Every now and then, one of the people exiting the teleporter mistakenly threw him a coin.
I could’ve lived in one of the new residential cities in Iceland or southern Argentina, where giant blocks of apartments were springing up, and where people teleported in every night just to sleep. But I wanted to try and feel rooted somewhere. Hardly anybody lived where they worked anymore, and it was getting more and more expensive to live in old-style commercial cities. Without Paul’s income, all I could afford was a tiny studio near the university in Fairbanks. At night I heard the students going out in packs, laughing. I’d been in a pack like that once—I remembered how the other girls and I would cuddle against each other as if it were cold, even though the warming meant it never was.
Then I went to college and met Paul, and I didn’t go home as much, and soon teleporting worked smoothly enough for the government to shut down all the failing cities, the ones the heat or the storms made too expensive to keep around. My hometown emptied out in the space of three days, all the people and everything of value teleported away. At the time I didn’t miss it; I was with Paul, and he had money, and suddenly we could go to Thailand or Paris in an instant. But my mom never adjusted to her new commuter apartment. She got depressed, then sick, and died a month after my wedding.
My old friends moved all over the world. The ones who could afford it went wherever they’d always dreamed of living, and the other ones took the commuter jobs that were becoming more and more common—one night in Minneapolis, the next in Gdansk. I lost track of all of them. And even though I stayed put, I never made friends like that again, with everyone else in flux, everyone moving. I couldn’t even imagine it now, the way it would feel to hug someone who wasn’t Paul, to be touched in a way that asked for nothing.
On the weekends, I went to the movies to get out of the light. I found a revival house that showed old ghost movies from the turn of the century. My favorite was The Ring. I rooted for the ghost girl, Samara, even though I knew you weren’t supposed to—her scary jerking crawl, the hair over her face, how strong her spirit must be to come back and back and back, springing itself from every prison. I watched it twice in one weekend.
I had not been prepared for the brightness, the way the sky looked like neither day nor night but like some hot metal hammered above the world.
The second time, just when the doctor has explained the backstory and the horses are hurling themselves into the sea, I began to hurt. It wasn’t a headache or a stomachache; it was a pain that had no location in my body. The pain was twisting, wrenching, like something was pulling my body in many directions—except it wasn’t just my body, it was me. I had a terrible sense of losing hold, of slipping. I could still see, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. I could hear, but the sounds were thick and meaningless, like feedback from a bad speaker. I asked myself where I was, and found I couldn’t answer. I found myself grasping and straining, failing to recall my name.
And then, just for a second, I came back together. I was back home, with David, the boy I’d dated in high school. We were sitting on the sidewalk in front of his house. It was night but the desert wind was hot in our faces, like it had been that last summer before we left. His hands were in my hair. We kept glancing around us; we’d come out here to escape his house full of nosy sisters, but we were wary of late-night dog walkers, people coming home from bars. We were quick and furtive. His mouth tasted like cinnamon. And then he slid his hand down my denim shorts, and the taste changed; I felt him go metallic with excitement and fear.
Then I remembered Paul’s mouth, the way his stubble scratched against my skin. I felt the twisting again, and the pain, even worse than before, like something central to my being that I’d never known existed was being torn to tiny shreds. I thought I was dying. Then, slowly, I felt myself coming up, coming to. The pain was still as bad as anything I’d ever felt, but I could make sense of the world again. I was in a theater. The woman in the next seat was looking at me. I touched my face and found tears running down my cheeks.
“It’s okay, hon,” the woman said. “It’s just a movie.”
For the next week I felt worn out. Every night I went to bed at 8pm and slept a full twelve hours. I didn’t go to the doctor. I was afraid of what a doctor would say, but there was something else, too. I felt good. I woke up every morning calm and hopeful, like someone had washed out the inside of my skull. I told myself that maybe the pain was a one-time thing, and I wanted to hang on to the sweet clarity as long as possible.
The following Tuesday I was in the Sitka office, which had very low ceilings and was bright in a different way than the outside was bright, a medical, buzzing brightness. No one ever talked to me except the head analyst, who came by periodically to point out an error in my work. She was usually wrong, but explaining where she’d misread was just as stressful as owning up to a mistake, and every time she left my desk I had to run to the bathroom to wash the sweat off my palms. I’d just come back from a bathroom trip and was staring at the column of numbers on my screen to calm down, when I felt the twisting again.
This time I thought maybe I could stave it off. I stood up. I pinched myself; I chugged coffee from the mug on my desk. But soon I lost the ability to do even those things; I forgot why I should do them. I felt myself sitting down and then I lost any feeling of myself. Where I had been was only the hurting.
Then I smelled smoke from a barbecue. I recognized it immediately, that dark summer scent, even though I hadn’t smelled it in years. My vision coalesced and I saw the park where we used to gather as teenagers, meat sizzling on a grill. The sweet dusk light was on everyone, dyeing our sweaty skins rosy and gold. My friend Dan handed me a burger, then tickled my stomach so I doubled over laughing. My friend Liza put her head on my shoulder, the smell of chlorine in her hair. I bit into the burger and tasted the juice of it, metallic and sweet. I tried to hold onto everything, the food and the night and all my friends around me, but I was slipping. I remembered work, my boss, my desk. Then I was pain again; I was nothing. A howling rang through the space where I had been.
When I came crawling up into consciousness, I was crying, but not as hard as when I’d resurfaced the first time. And I remembered that Dan and Liza hadn’t liked each other. I would never have been at a party with both of them. What I’d seen wasn’t a memory—it was more like a dream, or another, alternate life.
For a week nothing unusual happened. I got up in Fairbanks, did my morning work, teleported to Sitka, worked the rest of the day, ate bread and fish, and went home. Again I had the feeling of sweet calm, of clarity. I didn’t worry about the Sitka supervisor anymore, and when I didn’t worry, my numbers got better. I got an email from the Fairbanks supervisor praising my performance and asking me to get lunch with her the following week.
Men were noticing me, too. When I looked in the mirror, my skin looked smoother and clearer. The mean set of my mouth, left over from the day I’d moved all of my stuff out of Paul’s house, was gone. I’d never been beautiful, but I looked better than I had in years.
I woke up every morning calm and hopeful, like someone had washed out the inside of my skull.
Then on a Monday night I was at the bar in Sitka, eating dinner. I had a little glass of the spiced cloudy liqueur everyone drank there, and I was sipping and eating and reading an article on my handheld about how well the world economy was doing. A man behind me had been looking at me and I was trying to decide if I should go and sit with him, tell him my name.
This time, when I felt the twisting, I didn’t fight it. I leaned my mind and body into the feeling—the way that, back when people drove cars, they used to tell people to lean into a skid. It still hurt but I felt calmer, like the hurt was scraping me, cleaning me, wringing me out.
When my eyes started working again I could see my mother’s bedroom in our old house. I saw the knitted afghan on the bed that my grandmother had made, and the dark wood vanity table built into the wall of the room. My hair was wet and long down my back. My mother sat behind me with a fine-toothed comb, working out the knots. It hurt; she was never gentle. But every time she pulled so hard at my scalp that my eyes filled with tears, she squeezed my hand with hers. Our hands were the same size and shape, hers sun-spotted and dirty under the nails from her garden. I looked in the mirror—our faces were the same too, except I could see my father in mine, his high forehead, his brown eyes. When I was little, he would bring me close to him and flutter his eyelashes against my cheek. My mother’s knees made a frame, holding me. I gripped the corner of the vanity. I swore I’d never leave.
But already I was slipping, and the room was gone, and I was on a stretcher, being loaded into an ambulance under the metal sky.
At the hospital in Sitka, they put me in a room with lots of other sick people. A little boy was clutching his ear and howling. A middle-aged woman was lying in the bed next to mine, hooked up to dozens of tubes, her eyes wide-open and empty. She had long fingernails and slack, waxy skin. I tried not to look at her.
Finally, the doctor came in. She had gray hair and looked worried and tired.
“How long have you been having symptoms?” she asked me.
“What do you mean, symptoms?”
“Blackouts, hallucinations, unusual smells and tastes.”
“How do you know about all that?” I asked.
“I’ve seen three cases in the past year, and I’ve heard of more in Reykjavík and São Paolo. We’re starting to put together a pattern: pain, hallucinations, then you start passing out. How often do you use a teleporter?”
“Twice a day,” I said.
The doctor nodded.
“There’s a growing concern that teleporting might have side effects. Some doctors are calling it Teleportation-Induced Dissociation, but most of us just call it “the wanders.” We don’t know if it’s caused by something physical—the brain’s a complicated organ to build from scratch—or from the fear of your body being destroyed and recreated. But it doesn’t really matter—the effect is the same.”
“What’s the effect?”
Her face darkened.
“Increasingly intense hallucinations, ultimately resulting in persistent psychosis and catatonia. You black out more and more frequently, you’re unable to go to work or recognize friends or family, and ultimately you become completely oblivious to the outside world.”
She got out a prescription pad.
“Luckily, with you we caught it early. We can put you on Rectifil and you should be fine within a week. You can even keep teleporting as long as you stay on it.”
She started writing.
“Wait,” I said. “What if I don’t want to stop the hallucinations? Is there a way to control them, so I only get them sometimes?”
Her expression softened; she looked like she might feel sorry for me.
“I understand they can sometimes be pleasant,” she said. “Many patients see family members or long-lost friends.”
I looked down at my hands, embarrassed, as if she’d found me out.
“All I can tell you is what will happen to you medically if you refuse treatment,” she went on. “Within a few weeks, you’ll disintegrate. You won’t be able to feed yourself, and without intense medical intervention, you’ll die.”
She finished the prescription and handed it to me. Then her face changed a little, to an expression I couldn’t read.
“I do have to add,” she said, “that since you aren’t a danger to others, I can’t force you to take this medication. The choice is yours.”
I didn’t want to take the pills. I wanted to be able to see my mother and David and our town again. But I was scared of being a vegetable. I thought of the woman in the hospital bed next to mine and I imagined myself back in that room, drooling onto my hospital gown, eyes staring.
I swallowed my first pill that night. The medicine made my mouth dry and my skin itch. The feeling of calm disappeared, but in its place was a certain focus: I could whip through my quotas quickly, without getting bored or worrying about the Sitka supervisor. My numbers kept getting better.
When my Fairbanks boss took me to lunch—at a restaurant with real salmon on the menu—she offered me a raise and a promotion. I’d be doing analysis in four cities, Fairbanks and Sitka, plus Tianjin and Minsk. I could afford to live in one of the nicer residential cities, maybe even get a second room. I tried to imagine how I’d decorate the new apartment, what I’d put there, but none of the possessions I had felt like mine.
“Thanks,” I said, and my boss congratulated me.
Our hands were the same size and shape, hers sun-spotted and dirty under the nails from her garden.
The next week I went to buy furniture. With my new paycheck, I was flush with cash. The shiny-haired woman at the furniture store showed me the season’s new style of bed and dresser, super-lightweight and on rollers so they could be moved quickly and easily.
“Soon you’ll be able to just swap apartments every week,” she said. “Get all your stuff in the teleporter in twenty minutes, and within an hour you could be all set up in Paris.”
“What if you don’t want to go to Paris?” I asked.
The woman didn’t stop smiling.
“So go to Bangkok,” she said. “That’s the thing about these new pieces—you don’t have to be tied down anywhere.”
I leaned on the edge of the dresser and it slid away from me.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “They really are very sturdy.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, and I did.
I walked back to my apartment under the bright sky, and I saw all the men and women in good clothes hurrying to and from their jobs. I could become like them. I could be good at what I did and have a nice apartment with movable furniture, and I could move every two weeks and adapt each time to a new place. I could do everything that was expected of me and have a decent life, and I would feel perfectly fine.
When I got home I flushed all the pills down the toilet. Then I locked the door and turned off all the lights, even though I didn’t think it was necessary. No one was going to come looking for me. No one would stop me from going home.
Anna North is Salon’s culture editor. Her first novel, America Pacifica, was published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown in 2011.
The leading image is entitled Explosions, 2011. Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York.