“Finished!” exclaimed Clementine, running into the dining room with a proud grin on her face. In her outstretched arms she carried a giant pad of newsprint; it appeared unused but for the first sheet, every inch of which was filled with colourful, spidery shapes made of numbers and lines and circles. At the centre of it all was a fairly simple sum that the professor had written out for Clementine, and all the arching and intersecting lines converged beneath it where the solution was written in a small, carefully reserved space.
“Excellent, Clementine!” said the professor, as Clementine handed him the pad so he could make a closer inspection of the solution. Though seemingly indecipherable, he knew it would be quite logical, though it might take a little time to navigate.
Clementine’s parents were still confused, but they smiled and congratulated their daughter as well. Then her father spoke.
“Well, I think we should be going,” he said. “Clementine, run along to the door and put your boots on, we’ll be there in a moment.”
As Clementine departed, her father turned to the profesor. “What is all that stuff? She’s never had trouble with math before, and she’s never needed to do anything like that” he said.
“I know,” replied Professor Cortland. He grinned slightly. “But this time I told her: show your work.”
As they walked with the professor and Dr. Avery out of the dining room, Clementine’s parents arranged another meeting with the professor and took his card with the address of his office on the university campus. In the entryway, Clementine was using her finger to draw more complex arcs and lines in the condensation on the glass door. Her mother took her hand and led her back to the car, calling polite thanks and goodbyes as she went. Before following, her husband turned to Professor Cortland again.
“I realize I have one more question,” he said. “If this is a new condition as you say, does it have a name?”
“It is, of course, still unofficial,” answered the professor. “And I urge you not to use the term openly for the time being. But I believe it is best described as panathesia.”
Clementine’s father nodded, thanked the doctor again and left, feeling unsettled and craving time to think. When he reached the car, one look at his wife’s face told him she felt the same way. Professor Cortland understood what their daughter was experiencing, and could surely help her and them – that was clear. But it was also clear that he wasn’t telling them everything, and that his secrets weighed heavily on his mind.
“When can I see James again?” Clementine asked, eagerly, from the back seat.
“Very soon, sweety,” answered her mother. “Why don’t you tell us all about the puzzles you solved today?”
As Clementine began describing complicated lists of objectives and rules, her mother did her best to follow along while her father drove in silence.
But that was fifteen years ago. Clementine remembered that drive clearly, because even at the time she realized her words were making more sense to her mother, that she could clearly describe the professor’s challenges even if she couldn’t quite explain how she solved them. His tests had been half treatment: right from the start, he had been training her brain.
Clementine read the ad a second time, blinking to clear the smoke from her eyes. Tempted, she rose and crossed the room to where the kids were gathered. They must have been at an important juncture in some game – there was no spastic hammering of the keys, no cries of false anguish at onscreen deaths, no loud taunting over the tops of monitors. They all sat hunched, wide-eyed and silent, lost in their glowing screens and giant semiglobular headphones.
Clementine stood and watched them for a moment. Panathesia made even watching most games an intense experience, and her few attempts at playing had brought her to the brink of severe relapses. Nonetheless she was fascinated by the ability to create and destroy virtual worlds, and the way people could became attached to them as if they were real. Whole lifetimes stored on magnetic disks, sometimes off in some data farm in another country – indistinguishable from the real thing to our simple minds at some strange atavistic level. Sometimes she would stand behind one of the kids for hours, watching while they described each action, getting all caught up in the triumphs and setbacks of some extended campaign. Some of the kids were new to the country – the first- and second-generations called them fobs – and Clementine had even learned to speak Korean this way.
“Jeonun tam-bae,” she barked, trying to be heard over their headphones. One of the kids sitting closest to her handed a cigarette over his shoulder without looking around. She only knew most of them by the names they used online, and she hated saying them since they were all so damn stupid – so she just said thanks and walked back across the basement. She fished some matches out of her coat, lit her cigarette and read the ad a third time. Finally she opened a new email and wrote polite paragraph introducing herself and requesting a questionnaire. At the bottom, her default signature was attached:
“Lost and gone forever…”
Send packages c/o Corner Computers, 49 Rittner St.