We got out of the car on 8th Street and walked deep into the heart of SOMA, past the bondage and discipline shops, the nightclubs and the shelters, the free clinic, and black-windowed warehouses. It was too early in the evening for revelers, so the streets were quiet, empty except for bodies asleep on newspaper in the doorways of abandoned businesses and a fast-walking entrepreneur with a baguette tucked under his arm tearing off pieces of bread and stuffing them into his mouth as he walked.
Jason and I walked without speaking. It was part of the arrangement. He had agreed to give me fifteen minutes in the old place as long as we talked as little as possible, I paid the toll for the Bay Bridge, and I agreed to never speak to him again after this.
I hadn’t expected any better. Even before Jason lost his memory, he had been difficult to reach and even more difficult to convince. Though, this time I didn’t blame him. I doubt that I would have believed my story, if I hadn’t been the one telling it.
He had listened in silence on the ride from Silicon Valley to San Francisco as I told him that he had lost his memory in an accident at a nightclub in the city. He’d broken into the machines that powered the white room, an exhibit that tapped into the participant’s memories and recreated them, a carnival attraction and distant cousin of the virtual reality machine. I stopped there because Jason was driving, and I knew that if I told him what I believed really happened he would have turned the car around.
When I finished talking, Jason said nothing. He had always been difficult to read, and today was no exception. He was the only person I had ever met, who could step over a junkie splayed out on the sidewalk without pausing. Ruthless. It’s probably the reason he wasn’t sitting on a sidewalk himself somewhere talking to ghosts.
As we approached our destination, I patted my pocket to make sure that my corporate ID was still there and rehearsed the speech I would give to any security guards we might encounter.
“I’m a NEBO employee here on an assignment to investigate a potential breach of our terms of service by Jason Pepperman. And this? This is Jason Pepperman.”
I had no doubt that my excuse would work. They could call my boss, anyone up the chain of command all the way up to the CEO, and they would find that what I said was true as long as they didn’t ask too many questions about the details of my assignment and found out that the only access to this building I was supposed to have was from a computer hooked up to the network fifty miles away.
We arrived. Except for the bolt holes where a sign over the door had been attached to the concrete wall, there was no evidence of the building’s complicated history as a mill, a live/work loft for tech startups, and finally a nightclub. I knew Jason was feeling impatient, though he didn’t show it, so I didn’t waste any time reminiscing.
The door was locked and the lobby was dark, but there were no security guards, either. Jason guessed that there might be a door in the back, so, after checking to make sure the street was empty, we ducked into the alley that ran along one side of the building. There we found an unmarked brown door hidden from view of the street by a dumpster. It, too, was locked, and Jason kept on down the alley looking for another way in, but I stopped and pulled a bobby pin from my hair and used it to feel around the inside of the lock.
“Where did you learn how to lockpick?” Jason asked after a few minutes of wandering, when he noticed that I was no longer with him and came back to see what I was doing.
“Toby taught me,” I said, hoping that Jason wouldn’t ask who Toby was.
The whole reason we were here was because Toby was trapped in this building–part of him, anyway–and, bitter irony, here we were using his own trick to break him out.
With a final twist, the lock clicked open, and we descended a flight of stairs into the basement. I had always been afraid of basements, but in this basement that fear felt justified. It was a classic horror movie basement complete with a flickering exit sign and the remains of a single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, smashed at the end of a string. We picked our way across the dusty floor by the light of our iPhone screens.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been in that basement. I’d been there once before when a migraine chased me out of our studio apartment/office with its flickering fluorescent lights. Toby had steered me down three flights and sat me down at the top of the basement stairs. He’d stayed there with me for hours while I drank tea and waited for the spiral galaxy spinning in front of my eyes to fade, one star at a time.
At the time, it had been so strange to me that Toby and Jason were friends–let alone business partners and roommates–but it seemed to me now that they belonged together, as if the tension between Toby’s kindness and Jason’s selfishness kept the two of them in balance.
I hesitated at the top of the stairs. It had taken weeks to convince Jason to come with me, and now that we were here, I wanted nothing more than to turn around and get back in the car.
“Don’t look at me,” Jason said. “You know where we’re going, not me.”
Another piece of irony. It was Jason who had chosen this apartment building, Jason who had hired me to work here, and Jason who had wanted to stick with it long after the rest of us had given up. The startup had been Jason’s baby, and now he couldn’t remember a thing.
“I thought I heard something,” I lied, “But it’s gone now.”
Jason raised an eyebrow, an expression I read to mean that it was all on me if I screwed this up. Ruthless, but nothing I didn’t already know.
For once, my impatience outstripped Jason’s, and he struggled to keep up. I knew every inch of the first floor and could feel my way through the dark by walking from the door to the bar and from the bar to the main stairwell, past the roulette wheel and the white room where Toby had found his way into the building. I would have felt better if the basement stairs had dumped us out into the stairwell instead of in the middle of the first floor, in what had once been the main hallway before NEBO turned the first floor into a club. I’d promised myself that I would never set foot in that club again, but some promises cannot be kept.
I waited holding the stairwell door open for Jason to catch up. The light from the first floor window fell on the roulette wheel, and Jason spun it mindlessly as he passed.
“Don’t do that!” I snapped, hoping that his hand hadn’t rested on the wheel long enough for the machine to read him. As soon as the machine read him, that was it. He wouldn’t get a second spin. “Don’t touch that wheel!”
“Why not?” Jason asked. “What does it do?”
I had hoped that we wouldn’t have this conversation before I had a chance to at least attempt to jog Jason’s memory. Fortunately, Jason’s curiosity was like a pilot light. Without fuel, it died as quickly as it was born.
“You don’t want to know,” I said, and that was enough for him.
After the first floor, the building took on its old form as an apartment building, though the residents were gone, and rooms housed nothing but server racks.
I lead Jason to the end of the third floor and down to the end of the hall to the room where we had lived and worked together. Jason’s face showed no sign of recognition, and for a moment I wondered if I had done the right thing bringing him here, then quickly reassured myself. I had seen his memories of this place. I’d spent weeks jacked into the machines behind these doors collecting breadcrumbs, and I knew everything. I was the dealer in this game of cards. I held the deck and counted it and knew exactly what was in his hand.
The apartment was the way we’d left it. In a rare fit of sentimentality, my boss had decided to leave this room alone. As a favor to me, he said, though at the time I wished he had emptied it of all that remained of the old life and stuffed it with machines.
The desks were still there squatting in the middle of the room like a four-chaired command center. Even the PCs were still running, and Jason went to them immediately, circling the desks, pressing the spacebar on each keyboard to wake them up. At Toby’d desk he stopped, intrigued no doubt by the one machine that hadn’t been asleep and yet didn’t respond to his commands. The spark caught, and he sat down to diagnose the crashed computer, leaving me alone to catalog the stories I’d left myself in this room.
At my feet was a red stiletto with a broken heel, the old shoe that had danced in the high school gymnasium under the butcher paper banner scrawled with the prom theme, ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” though everyone knew that the sign would have been more accurate if it had said, “Anywhere but Kansas.” That shoe had followed me from Kansas to San Francisco, through art school and waitressing and here until the last night when I tried to stuff it into a backpack on my way out the door, and the heel snapped.
The floor was covered with detritus like this. Yoga pants and sweaters, empty bottles of Adderall, the Red Bull can pyramid that had toppled in that last mad rush to escape.
“How does it feel to be back here?” I asked.
Jason didn’t answer me. I knew that he wouldn’t until he was satisfied that this opponent was beyond him, so I sat on the floor and sorted things into piles, though I had no intention of taking any of it with me.
“I know things like facts,” Jason said finally, tapping the keys on Toby’s keyboard madly one last time before pushing it back onto the desk and getting up to circle the room again. “I know that I worked here because you told me–”
“You didn’t just work here. This was your startup. More than anything in the world you wanted to build a game company.”
“I know that,” he said. “You told me, but that’s all I know. It feels like it happened to somebody else.”
“And Toby?” I asked.
“He was your best friend!”
“I know,” he said.
“Because I told you,” I finished for him, and he nodded, sitting down on Toby’s bed, though he didn’t know it had been Toby’s bed, and I said nothing about it until Jason picked up Toby’s pillow, and smelled it.
“This bed wasn’t mine,” Jason said.
“No, it wasn’t,” I agreed, but I still didn’t tell him it was Toby’s. Sitting on a dead man’s bed is like wearing a dead man’s underwear. Now that it’d happened, I figured it was best for Jason not to know.
“How did he die?” Jason asked, the first time he’d shown any interest of his own in Toby since I reached out to him.
“Suicide,” I said. “He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“Are you serious?” Jason asked. “How uncreative, and I’m supposed to have been friends with this guy?”
“Best friends,” I said. “Co-founders.”
“No wonder the startup failed. You can’t have a developer with no imagination. He was a developer, right?”
“One of the best,” I said.
I start to snap back something about not talking about things he doesn’t know, cruelty Jason had earned many times over, though putting him on edge would have done nothing to get us out of here.
“He was depressed, Jason,” I said instead. “Depression isn’t creative.”
“Depression or no depression, if you’re going to go out, you should go out in style.”
“Style,” I said. “Style. This is how we went out. Do you call this style?”
“What happened to the startup again?”
“You know what happened to us. I told you. Toby died, and then the rest of us couldn’t keep it together.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You are surrounded by evidence! This, all of this is the evidence! This whole room is evidence that we failed.”
“You failed. I can’t remember it. It wasn’t my life.” Jason said pulled out his phone and checked the time. “Ten minutes down, five to go.”
I was desperate, but pointing out to him that he had spent most of those ten minutes trying to hack into Toby’s machine would have done nothing, so I looked around for anything that might jog his memory.
My eyes traveled over the desk, to the unblinking cursor on Toby’s machine, the only evidence of the crash that had driven him out of the apartment for a cigarette, he said, though he never came back. And next to Toby’s desk Jason’s, empty except for a–That’s it!
I got up and snatched up the whistle and held it out to Jason.
“You know what this is. I know you do. You don’t have to remember anything about Toby to remember what this is.”
“It’s a whistle,” he said flatly.
“Look closer,” I said and dropped it on the bed next to him and waited.
He looked the whistle over obediently, running his fingers over the face molded into one end.
“Captain Crunch,” he said. “Is this the whistle Captain Crunch used to hack into Ma Bell?”
“No,” I said and Jason looked disappointed, “But it was a whistle like this.”
“A little plastic whistle,” he said in a sing-song voice, a tone that I’d only heard him use once before in a memory that he’d left behind here in pieces. Playing that memory had been like playing a scratched record. I only hoped that the missing pieces were still in his mind.
“Frank,” Jason said.
“Frank gave this to me and–” He stopped mid-sentence with his mouth open. “Toby. Holy shit. Toby knew Captain Crunch. No. No, no he didn’t. He knew Frank. How did he know Frank? Who’s Frank? No, wait. Don’t tell me. Something about a train.”
“You met Frank on a train,” I promoted, barely daring to hope that now, finally, it was all coming together.
“Toby met Frank on a train. We did. The day we–” He stopped, but I could do nothing to help him here. He was getting into stuff even I didn’t know. “It was our very first day in the city. There. It’s where it all began in Frank’s… And this is what became of that, then. And Toby is gone.”
“Not all gone,” I said.
“But you said that he killed himself,” Jason argued.
“He did. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Cognitive fragments, then. Or something. I don’t care what you call it. Something that was part of Toby once is trapped in the white room, and he’s asking for you.”
“Yes, you. You were his best friend. Will you see him? If you remember really hard and want to come back to this place at the beginning, before Toby died and the startup failed, you can see him.”
“Yes,” Jason said quickly, and then, “No. No. Why would I possibly want to go back there after I’ve seen this?”