The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island

By Julianna Baggott

In “The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island,” a programmer finds himself working for the self-proclaimed “Bad-Boy of Virtual-Reality Therapy.” While his boss is breaking new ground and breaking the rules and his coworkers are engaging in questionable uses of the latest technology, the lonely programmer is in a state of mourning over his deep personal losses and must figure out his own form of therapy.

Everything had been going along just fine. Helen Viorst was in the game. She was playing well, as she had been for three months of intensive outpatient therapy. The trouble hit when she was sent into her Childhood Kitchen. In this part of the game, I’d coded a close-enough replica. In my career, I’ve recreated hundreds of Childhood Kitchens. The program auto-adjusts for approximations of era and status, and the vast majority of our clients were raised with great wealth. But I’ve found that you’ve got to get the appliances spot-on or everything falls apart. You’d be surprised how much time as a child you spent considering the internal organs of your Childhood Kitchen. But remember the Refrigerator blinked open with holy light and offered Food. The Oven burst wide with Maternal Heat and offered Nourishment. The Washing Machine made things clean and new, Redemption. Of course, as ever, the necessary finishing touches (the ones that spark Deep Trauma) were provided by Helen’s memory, things she spilled in sessions with her therapist, Klaus Han.

(I’ll get to Klaus in due time.)

Helen’s details included a certain kind of cookie called Friar Tuck Melt-Aways, with a chocolate candy inside. I found the brand name and recreated a box of them. She offered both of her parents’ shoes—her father wore fine Italian leather lace-ups that cuffed his ankles and her mother wore open-toed high heels with lots of unnecessary straps that hung limply around the delicate, “almost birdlike” bones of her feet. And, most importantly, Helen whispered to Klaus Han in her session—you can listen for yourself, her voice goes raspy for a moment on the tapes—that she would hide underneath a table (made of Pink Ivory wood imported from Mozambique) built into the corner of the kitchen, and curl up next to her terrier, Duchess.

“There was a heating vent under there,” Helen said. “Duchess and I used to hide next to it while my parents fought. I could see their shoes and, because they didn’t know I was there, they said the cruelest things to each other.”

In this particular nook of her virtual reality, Klaus had said, “Go literal, Archie.” And to get a feel for Klaus, I think it’s important to note that my name isn’t Archie. It’s Archer Frimm. And he told me this in his office while he was using a touch-up kit to dye the white roots of his hair. His bulky hands were fitted into latex gloves so as not to stain his fingernails and he was daubing his temples with a small brush—the size of a doll’s janitorial push broom—while looking at a mirror propped on his desk.

I’m not going to lie. I have issues with Klaus Han. He once took me out for drinks when I was a new hire and he leaned over his plate of puffed-up three-cheese gougeres and duck rillettes while fishing shiny cocktail onions out of his martini and, with overblown exhaustion, he said, “You know what they call me. The Bad-Boy of Virtual Reality Therapy. I’m a renegade.” He waved his fat hand, the kind of bulbous knuckles you’d find on a boxer. “It is what it is.” And then he went on to tell me that he himself had dabbled in coding as a boy but thought it was way too tedious for his expansive imagination. “I do ideas.”

I probably nodded and smiled at all of this. And as I think about it now, I hate my face, sweet and slightly misty with perspiration. My God, I wanted Klaus Han to like me even though I was already sure I despised him.

At the end of the night, he hugged me sloppily—all meaty paws and clapping my back like I was a colicky baby—and while chest-to-chest, he whispered into my ear, “I didn’t expect you to smell like money.” He’d meant it as a compliment, but I left thinking that he was the kind of man who’d let another man know that he was blatantly smelling him. People shouldn’t acknowledge that they’re smelling other people. I know Klaus well enough guess that, if questioned, he’d say it’s primal, something like: “No way around it. When we embrace, we take a whiff. There’s DNA in that scent.”

However, Klaus is brilliant. I’ll give him that. His methods do make him a renegade. And this was what he was famous for—knowing the precise moment in a patient’s therapy to pivot away from the big World-Building phase of the Archetypal Abstractions of trauma, grief, and despair, and go for something simple and profound. The root of the cause.

Look, I’d built an incredible Jungian, Freudian virtual reality for Helen. Sure, I relied on worlds I’d built before. She began as only a Shadow of herself, navigating all the basics: a deluge, an apocalypse. Klaus said, “I’d go with nuclear war for this one. Okay? Can you manage?”

Helen had battled an angry giant—Daddy, of course. We even made the giant a little jittery sometimes, like her own father, who was known to do a few lines of coke at the office holiday party or after a big merger or with his mistress at the Grand Hotel Vigdof in Chelyabinsk—Russia, that is, where the old man had a lot of shady pharmaceutical ties.

As a Shadow, Helen was hounded by a wolf who nipped at her constantly but never devoured her whole, aka Mommy. And Mommy also became the threatening Maiden; I stuck that bit in when Helen was trying to survive the Deluge.

Helen, who’d had no children of her own, had also been through Creation. “Really turn up the green. Make this a beauty, okay?” Klaus told me. “Don’t hold back on Eden.”

Eventually, during all of this, Helen went from Shadow to Animal—she chose to be a bear, which Klaus thought was “very interesting” and “a good sign”—to Child—she’d been big-eyed and unusually small in her youth and unable to swim. She would enter her Childhood Kitchen as a Child. It was the last level she had to pass before becoming Self.

It was easy to code: the built-in table, the melt-away cookies, the heating vent, the terrier, and, most of all, her parents’ shoes. Basically, I designed her Childhood Kitchen without ever having to code her parents’ faces. (Faces can be very time-consuming and if the patient has a good imagination, they’re not as necessary as you’d think.) From the hiding place with the dog, I just intimated the parents from the shoes up.

“She’s going to get the cookie and make it to the next level,” Klaus face-messaged me from a Chinese poker game. “Go ahead and start rendering her Self. This one is a go-getter.”

I’d only heard her voice up until this point—everything at the agency was on a need-to-know basis. We had celebs in all the time and if they didn’t ever make it to Self, which they often didn’t, there was no need to let coders know that the celeb had been here at all. Klaus attached the video with the audio this time so I could capture her full expressions and gestures and body.

And, to be honest, when it popped into my queue, I was knee-deep in trying to revamp a World for an eleven-year-old boy who’d found his older brother’s body—the teenager, fit and strong, had accidentally hung himself on some kind of boat rigging. The boy, alone in a boathouse, had tried to cut his brother down with a dull knife used to cut bait. It’s tricky because a kid with Survivor’s Guilt needs to feel empowered—I’d created a large metal mecha for the boy to climb into, beefy robotics—but these types can’t be armed with assault rifles because they just can’t be responsible for any more Death. So I was trying to create a world where the eleven-year-old was saving white-throated sparrows who’d been tangled by debris along the coast of an island off of Maine. He didn’t have to kill any Beasts at all. The boy was also Klaus’s patient and, to be honest, Klaus had lost interest in the kid. He’d lost interest in most of his patients except for Helen Viorst. He’d left a face message for me in which he looked fat in his eyes, his cheeks rubied as if he’d spent the night drinking. He puffed his cheeks and let the air out slowly—the deflation of a balloon. “On that Everly boy,” he told me, “why don’t you just have at it?”

So I was still working on the boy as the tape loaded, but then suddenly there was Helen Viorst, a real beauty. Just a couple years older than I am, early forties at the most. She has black hair with purplish undertones. She still looks like someone who can’t swim, not enough buoyant fat.

I went back through the tapes, starting at Session One. She came in wearing willowy pants, chunky jewelry—all real gold, I assumed—and a low-cut blouse. I watched her fine arched eyebrows tighten with pain, her shoulders buck with difficult memories, her lips fall open and her eyes go wide as she looked off, distantly.

What had I learned about her specific suffering? Her father had his Russian mistress—and other ones too—her mother blamed youth and, strangely enough, she blamed Helen. Their house was so big and wide and empty that Helen’s father rode around in it on his motorcycle once while high. Her mother tried to drown herself in the pool three times. The Christmas tree once caught on fire. How? She wouldn’t say, but they all nearly died.

I thought of her at night sometimes when I was trying to fall asleep, my wife right beside me, behind the scenes. The way Helen cried—I hate myself for saying this—but it sounded beautiful and lush, like an orgasm. And sometimes I wondered if she would ever think of me. The fluorescent lights in my office give me migraines so I keep it a little dark while I take people’s traumas and turn them into games. I’d made her father a coke-headed giant. I’d made her mother a wolf. I was going to try to make her into herself. Something I couldn’t do for my wife or myself; the miscarriages—three of them in a row—were hard on us.

While I was doing the coding of her forehead, Klaus popped his head into my office. His real, live head—flashing smile, trimmed mustache, a suit jacket and shirt unbuttoned so that a glimpse of his undershirt was visible. His chest was hairless—organically?

He said, “Listen, Archie, I’m asking you because you’re the best. Do up a render of me, okay? I’m going to send you some footage. A few speeches I’ve given so you can use them.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s not really policy.”

“Do I seem like a policy guy?” he said, and then he smiled like a drunk father at a wedding. I’ve coded my share of drunk fathers. “Are you the only coder in this place who hasn’t self-rendered and fucked a celebrity in a gaming room?” His expression read: My sweet, sweet boy.

So, self-rendering and fucking renders of celebrities were widespread issues. Bobby A and Bobby B—there were two Bobbies and the lettering was how Klaus distinguished them so we all followed suit—had offered more than once to stand guard while I “tested my code.” And it wasn’t just an old-boy’s network. The female coders were in on it too. Jill and Marcy had both, separately, walked up and whispered, “So who’d you pick?” And when I said, “No one,” they both looked at me like I was a pet ferret someone had chosen to bring to work that had gotten loose and then, against all odds, hired. Part animal, part miracle.

And it was widely rumored that Klaus kept a vast selection of celebrities’ renders—from various eras—and sold them on the black market, which was where he made the bulk of his cash. He was a wealthy man. Surely Klaus had renders of himself. Did he just want a really good one because he actually thought I was the best? Or were his just outdated? The photo of Klaus on our promotional materials was from a bygone era. I’d stared at it and thought that the Klaus I knew was in there somewhere.

About me, Klaus was right and wrong. I hadn’t fucked any celebrities in the gaming room, but I had in fact rendered myself and my wife, Evangeline. She was very scientific about the miscarriages. She mourned the first, but then explained the statistical frequency of miscarriages with the second. After the third, she decided it was better to shut things down for a while, a fallow fields approach. She didn’t mourn at all, or not in front of me. She said that each time she started to express her sadness, it was as if she gave me permission to be sad, and my sadness was too much for her to bear. “This is simple biology,” she kept explaining. “This is just how the body works. You can’t take it personally.” I imagined the small fetuses in their watery worlds, drowning, and how I couldn’t save them. What kind of father could fail, so consistently, at saving his children from drowning? Of course it was personal. Failure usually is.

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