The Instancy Effect
by James Rumpel
In a dimly lit back alley, a trio of gang members approached a solitary woman. She clearly did not belong in this part of town and definitely not in the middle of the night. She was tall and gangly, and her long, blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail. She looked to be in her mid-thirties and fairly well-to-do. Her expensive jogging suit and high-scale sneakers made her an easy mark.
“Whatchya doing here, beautiful?” said the leader.
The woman ignored him. She didn’t change her pace, walking deeper into the unlit alley.
“Don’t disrespect us. I am talking to you.” He waved his hand, and his comrades sprinted to block her path.
“Listen,” she finally spoke, “I’ve got no business with you. Just leave me alone.”
“Well, we’ve got business with you.” The leader made another gesture, and the two young men who blocked her path simultaneously reached for her.
In one fluid motion, the woman grabbed the arm of one of her assailants and threw him over her shoulder. She spun around, her left leg landing a perfectly placed kick to the second attacker’s groin. He fell to the ground with a loud grunt. The woman regained her balance almost immediately and jumped into the air, kicking her right foot into the face of the man she had thrown to the ground. Her shoe caught him squarely in the jaw.
The gang leader looked at his fallen comrades. “You are going to pay for that,” he shouted and pulled a handgun from behind his back.
Before he finished his sentence, the woman was on him. A swift kick to the stomach emptied all the air from his lungs. The round kick which followed sent him tumbling backward. The gun fell harmlessly from his hand.
The woman was about to advance on her prey when she heard the distinct sounds of additional gang members rushing to join the fray.
“I don’t have time for this,” she said to no one in particular. Without another word, she turned and dashed further into the darkness.
After a short distance, the woman realized that the narrow alley came to a dead end. A twelve-foot-tall chain link fence blocked her path. Without slowing, she veered slightly towards the right side of the alley. With a perfectly timed jump, she planted one foot on a garbage bin and pushed off.
After two steps on the side of the brick wall, she flung herself across the alley, completing her perfectly executed parkour move by grabbing the bars of a window on the opposite side of the alley. She swung herself onto the fence and did a handstand before allowing herself to fall to the other side, touching the ground without even a slight bobble.
The woman straightened her warm-up jacket and continued walking further into the darkness; her pace returned to a brisk walk.
* * *
Three blocks later the woman reached her destination. In the doorway of an abandoned factory stood a heavyset man with hands dug deep into the pockets of his gray hoodie.
“You’re late,” he called.
“I got a little sidetracked, but I’m here now. Let’s get this done.” She reached into her pocket and withdrew a large roll of bills. “Give me the card.”
“First you give me the money. And don’t try any of that sleight-of-hand magic crap. I know how that stuff works and can spot it instantly.”
“JoJo, we’ve never had any problems with deals before. We’re friends, aren’t we?” She offered the bundle of money to JoJo.
“Sure, we are. You’re my best customer.”
Now it was JoJo’s turn to reach into his pocket. He pulled out a small white envelope. “Here you go. Enjoy.”
“Oh, I will. I already know what I am going to do with this one.” The woman took a card out of the envelope and flipped it around between her fingers a few times before putting it in her pocket. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, JoJo.” The woman nodded once and then turned, heading back in the direction from which she had come.
* * *
Eric Thompson’s car had barely stopped in the driveway; he jumped out of the driver’s side door and raced into his house. He did not wait for his daughter, Karen, who remained in the backseat. Eric feared he already knew what had happened, but he didn’t know if he should be feeling pity, despair, or shame.
Music was blaring from an adjacent room. Eric called to his wife, “Julie, Julie.” He was not surprised when she failed to answer. Entering the living room, he found Julie gracefully dancing to ballet music. She completed a perfect fouetté and then stopped and smiled at her husband.
“Isn’t this great? I can dance beautifully! Everyone always said I had the body of a dancer. Now I can do it.”
“Oh, Julie, you didn’t get another instant neural enhancement, did you?”
Julie stared at Eric, frowning. “Yes, I did an INE this morning. I know I said I wouldn’t. I tried not to, but I got the chance to learn ballet. I’ve always wanted to dance. I only got a level eight, I didn’t purchase a full ten.” A tear slowly snaked its way down her cheek.
“Julie, you know that doing too many instant enhancements can be dangerous. You are only supposed to get two, at the most. How many have you had?”
Julie paused. “I think six... Or is it eight? I forget.”
“You also forgot to pick Karen up from school today. That’s twice this week. If she hadn’t had the sense to call me, she’d still be sitting in front of the building.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry. Do you want to see my passé?”
“I understood the first two,” said Eric, ignoring Julie’s question. “It made sense to learn self-defense and cooking, but now the enhancements aren’t doing anything useful.”
“What do you mean?” Julie glared at her husband. “I never got to learn any of the fine arts like piano or dancing when I was younger. My family didn’t have the money yours did. I was deprived. Now, I get to learn these things and be great at them. It’s so exhilarating.”
“That’s just it. You’re just doing it for the feeling, not the skill. You don’t need to know parkour. You have an addiction, Julie. We have to do something.”
“I’m fine, dear,” Julie replied, her tone suddenly changing once again. “I promise not to get any more INE’s. There, does that make you happy?”
* * *
“Wait up,” shouted Susan Browning, Julie’s best friend, neighbor, and jogging partner. “This isn’t a race.”
Julie stopped and turned to wait.
“You don’t have to run so fast,” said Susan, between deep breaths.
“Well, I kind of do,” replied Julie. “I need to be in really good shape to do all the ballet and parkour that I want. I know how to do everything, but my body still has to be capable of doing it.”
“But our jogging time isn’t about that. It’s our chance to talk and see how our families are doing. For instance, you haven’t told me how Karen is liking the fourth grade so far.”
“She’s fine, I think. You know, if I time my leap correctly, I bet I could step on each of those three benches and then push off the retaining wall. Watch this.”
“But I want to...” Susan failed to finish her sentence. There was no reason to, Julie had already taken off.
* * *
Eric lay in bed, alternately staring at the ceiling and the bedside clock. He couldn’t let himself fall asleep. If he did, Julie might use the opportunity to sneak out and make some sort of black-market deal for another INE card.
He didn’t like having to spy on his wife, but it was a necessary evil. Had he not been keeping a close eye on her belongings; he would not have noticed that her grandmother’s jewelry box and rings were gone. Julie must have pawned them to get cash. Even with her access to all the family bank accounts denied, she was still finding ways to get money.
He rolled to his side and gazed at his sleeping wife, assuring himself that he still loved her, no matter what the circumstance. Inside, he knew he was losing her. It might already be too late. She had told him that she was going to stop getting instant enhancements, but he could not trust her. A fact that was the most painful part of this entire scenario.
This situation was his fault. He should have never allowed Julie to start getting INE’s in the first place. He knew that her father had been an alcoholic and that Julie always had a bit of an addictive personality. The dozens of porcelain figurines stored in the basement were evidence to that fact. Why had he let her talk him into getting the first enhancement? Why hadn’t he watched her closer to make sure she didn’t get more?
Eric caught himself giving into sleep and jerked back to consciousness. His efforts were futile. It was impossible to keep an eye on her twenty-four hours a day. Susan and Julie’s mother were trying to help, but they couldn’t cover all possible times.
Maybe it would be best to just fall asleep. It would allow his mind a brief respite from the constant worry and guilt.
* * *
Eric entered the house to the sound of a shrieking smoke detector and the sight of smoke billowing from the oven. After pulling the burnt roast from the stove and opening a couple of windows he began searching for Julie.
She was in the living room, her fingers flitting about the keys of their electric piano. Eric had to admit, the song she played would have been beautiful if not for the circumstances.
“Julie, didn’t you hear the alarm going off?”
His wife ignored him or, more honestly, never heard him. She continued playing without missing a beat.
“Julie, stop!” Eric quickly crossed to the piano and switched it off.
“What did you do that for?” asked Julie. “Now I have to start over.”
“Julie, look at me. Did you get another enhancement?”
Julie started to shake her head but must have realized that it would be impossible to explain how she had learned to play such exquisite piano in one afternoon. “Yes, isn’t it wonderful? I always wanted to take lessons but we couldn’t afford them growing up.”
“No, it is not. In fact, it’s terrible. You are going to seriously hurt yourself if you keep this up.”
“Don’t worry. I can handle it. And it’s so cool that I can use my new skill to entertain you and our daughter. Tell you what, I think I’ll go put a roast in the oven for supper. Later, I’ll put on a concert.”
* * *
Julie sat on the wooden chair in the center of the Thompson living room, surrounded by family and friends. Her mother sat on the sofa. Eric paced back and forth in front of the plate glass window. Nine-year-old Karen sat on the carpet, an arm’s length away from her mother. Susan stood behind Karen.
“We all care about you so much,” said Julie’s mother. “We don’t want to see you hurt yourself.”
“I’m fine. There is nothing wrong with me,” announced Julie defiantly.
Eric held up a pamphlet and waved it in front of Julie’s face. “Even the company that makes the INE says that overuse can be hazardous. There is only so much room in your mind. If you start filling it with unnatural skills and instant information, eventually other things get replaced. You can lose memories, or your personality could be affected.”
“We love you, Julie,” added Susan. “We love you just the way you are... were. We don’t want to lose you.”
Julie looked at Susan for a second before shrugging and saying, “I am perfectly okay. I got instant enhancements to make myself a better wife and mother. I even learned how to cook fancy French food. I made coq au vin just the other day.”
Eric stared into his wife’s eyes. “That was four months ago. You haven’t cooked anything in weeks.” After a pause and a deep breath, he continued, “You are so caught up with all this instant learning that you are neglecting everything else.”
“Julie,” added her mother, “you have to accept the fact that you have an addictive personality like your father. Remember what we went through because of his... problem. You’re a human being. We all have our flaws. We can deal with this. We can get past it. Please let us get you help. Let us take you to a rehab center.”
“That’s what you all want, isn’t it? To get rid of me. You’re all just jealous.”
“No, that’s not it at all. We want you to stop needing to add enhancements. We want to help you,” pleaded Susan.
Again, Julie stared at Susan, confused. She started to address her neighbor but seemed to be at a loss for words.
“You do recognize Susan, don’t you?” asked Julie’s mother.
“Yes, I do. I remember everything. My memory isn’t being affected. I remember the house I grew up in... it was on... Harper or Harris Street...” She shook her head vehemently. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a better person now. I can play piano. I can dance. Why don’t we forget all of this nonsense and let me play a few songs for everyone?”
From her position on the floor, Karen stared at her mother, her eyes blinking rapidly in an attempt to hold back her tears.
* * *
The nurse escorted Eric from the room and closed the door, leaving Julie behind.
“I am sorry, Mr. Thompson. We have no idea how she got out last night or where she got ahold of the INE card or the equipment to use it. She must have someone helping her on the outside.”
Eric was not placated by the apology. “We pay your facility to watch her. We told you that she was skilled at climbing, fighting, and lock-picking. Yet, you allowed her to steal other patients’ money and escape. This is totally unsatisfactory.”
“I agree,” said the facility administrator, strolling around the corner. The woman was clearly not going to be intimidated by Eric’s anger. “We can’t have Julie stay here any longer. She has proven to be a danger to herself, the other residents, and the staff. You are going to have to find someplace else for her. I suggest a well-guarded psychiatric ward. She can stay here until the end of the week.”
“You can’t do that,” insisted Eric. “We signed a contract. You’re supposed to provide care for Julie.”
“Her case is beyond what we are able and willing to deal with. The contract can be voided if the patient is a threat, which your wife clearly is.”
“Well, then I am taking her out immediately. I’ll take care of her at home until a better place can be found.”
“Very well. We will begin preparing the release forms.” The administrator and nurse both walked away, leaving Eric alone in the hall. In the silence that followed, Eric distinctly heard the sound of tap dancing coming from Julie’s room.
* * *
Eric guided Karen into Julie’s room. Julie was doing pliés against the headboard of the bed. Eric cleared his throat in an effort to get her attention.
“Oh hello,” said Julie. She spun around and focused on Karen. “Hi, little girl. Aren’t you pretty? I love your beautiful yellow dress. Where did you get it?”
Karen looked back at her father, as if asking for permission to run and hide. He shook his head and gestured towards her mother. “You... my mother made it for me on my birthday,” Karen replied.
“Well, the workmanship is amazing. I know how to sew like that. Maybe I could make you a dress someday.”
* * *
“How’s she doing?” asked Susan when she saw Eric carrying a bag of trash out to the curb.
“Better, I guess,” he replied. “The operation was successful. The enhancement blocker is working. She can’t get any more of them, but the damage is still there. The doctor says she might start to get some of her memories back, but it will take time.”
“Has she accepted the fact that she can’t get any more?”
“She has now. She tried a couple of times right after the procedure. I think she still hates me for having it done to her. I had no choice.”
Susan smiled and shrugged, “You did the right thing. You had no other options. How’s Karen handling everything?”
Eric paused, searching for the right words. “She’s struggling. I think she thought the operation would instantly return her mother to normal. It still breaks her heart every time Julie forgets her name or ignores her. It’s been tough. I try my best to give her positive attention, but she needs her mother’s love.”
* * *
The moment he got home from work; Eric knew something was wrong. Julie’s mother was waiting for him by the front door.
“I don’t know how she did it,” exclaimed the old woman, tears flowing from her eyes. “I never thought this could happen.”
Eric didn’t say a word. He pushed past his mother-in-law and raced into the house. Intricate, beautiful music could be heard coming from the living room.
He froze in the doorway. Julie and Karen were sitting together at the piano, playing a duet.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” called Karen. “Now I’m just like Mom.”
Copyright © 2021 by James Rumpel