And later Jane had discovered the pendant they had spotted together at Wannamaker’s. The way she kissed him afterwards had all the promise of warming up those long winter nights to come.
Jeff finished his drink, looked once more at the colored lights reflecting on the snow outside to take it all in, to fix the image in his memory for the years to come. He left the glass in the kitchen sink, and headed to bed, catching himself still mumbling the words from the musical revue they had watched on the television set that night.
It's Christmas in Heaven
Hip hip hip hip hooray
Every single day is Christmas day
He had pondered for a while about buying one of those new color TVs, something to bring the family together even more. But he thought better of it. It was just a fad and by next year no one would even be talking about them anymore.
Sleep came all too easily, but was populated by the familiar, surreal nightmares. Drowned cities, poisonous tentacles of giant medusas exploding from the murky depths to prey on forlorn boat people whose sunburned skin stuck to their ribs, their overgrown brains swimming in amniotic fluid in cylindrical glass cranium implants above their heads.
It came as no surprise that he woke up with a horrible migraine. Something obviously hadn’t gone down very well on Christmas night, maybe it had been the big turkey dinner, but more likely he had just had one drink too many. He got up gently, making reassuring noises for Jane, who turned the other way and continued her slumber. He needed a glass of water, maybe some Alka Seltzer. He descended the stairs carefully, keeping the lights off so as not to disturb the sacred quietness of his home, turned towards the kitchen, almost missing the shining spectacle in the living room.
No it can’t be, he thought with a light sense of vertigo. It’s all in my head, He leaned against the fridge, his head throbbing, the palms of his hands sweaty. I ate too much, guzzled one martini too many. It’s just the wrappings, that’s what I saw, just the wrappings. Yet he distinctly remembered that Jane had patiently cleaned up after Jimmy’s present unwrapping frenzy. He stepped back carefully, massaging his temples. No, there was no mistake. All the presents were there, untouched under the decorated tree, shining in the reflection of the moonlight from the window right behind. He could clearly see the oblong form of the red truck he had watched being packaged in golden paper at JC Penney’s by a slight brunette dressed like Santa’s elf. Even the little silver box with his wife’s pendant sat on the top of the pyramid of increasingly smaller packages he had set up himself two nights earlier. This was wrong, all wrong. He ran back to the kitchen. Water, I need some icy water. Drink it all, breathe deeply, wake up for good and go back to see that everything is just the way it should be. Christmas day was yesterday, it was great, but it is past and gone now.
But in the kitchen he found something else. Just on the right side of the fridge, Jeff spotted a door. It was just a small door. He would have had to bend over to actually get through it. Maybe a broom closet? But the problem was, that door had not been there yesterday. It had never been there, as far as he could remember. Without too much thought, he gave it a gentle knock to check if anyone was inside. He proceeded to silently scoff at his own foolishness, then pulled the handle, opening the door to a shallow cavity that contained some sort of metallic apparatus, at the center of which sat a small TV screen with rounded corners, flanked by an assortment chrome dials and levers. For a moment Jeff got a glimpse of his own reflection, distorted on the surface of the grey cathode ray tube. This feels strangely familiar, he thought as a memory flashed of being somewhere white and aseptic, some narrowly confined space that he could not wait to escape. In the memory, he was looking at himself in a mirror, but his reflected image had his eyes closed, as if asleep. Another bad dream?
The croaking sound startled him out of his reverie. Another man was now staring back from the screen, frames scrolling up broken by black horizontal bands. The man’s distorted, unintelligible words sounded like he was repeatedly clearing his throat. Jeff instinctively tapped on the side screen, and the image came into focus, the gurgling sounds coalescing into words. The man looked quite familiar, yet exotic. Some Indian guy he knew. I must have met him, but where? Grand Central Station perhaps? He was speaking angrily. Speaking to me?
“I know what you did, Jeff. I cannot believe that you gave to me an extra shift. Now I have to work two days in a row. It is not fair, it is a very bad thing you are doing to me, Jeff, a very very bad thing,” he repeated over and over, wiggling his right index finger like it was some unhinged prop. “You will not be getting away with this. No sir, no!”
I know this man, he suddenly realized. His name is Jeff, he thought. Wait, no, why would I think that? I am Jeff.
“Are you already up dear?” It was Jane, he could sense her, smell her Chanel no. 5 fragrance before seeing her curly hair and her taffeta nightgown. “Why don’t you come back to bed,” she whispered, “you sure don’t want to wake up Jimmy ahead of time. What are you doing out here, anyway?” She moved towards him, reaching to touch his tense shoulders.
“Nothing!” Jeff had already slammed the small door shut, and was leaning with his back against it.
“Oh, you don’t say!”
“What?” What has she seen, he wondered.
“You didn’t, did you?”
“I didn’t if that’s not what you want.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. That sure is what I want. You got me that new washing machine didn’t you?”
“Why else would you be leaning against the laundry door? Relax, Jeffrey, it’s Christmas day, well, it almost is.”
“Ok, big guy, I see you want to play all mysterious, so why don’t you come back to bed with me? I might surprise you, and then I’ll let you surprise me again in a couple of hours.” He could almost see the smile in her words, and watched her with longing as she faded into the darkness of the hallway.
“It won’t be a minute, honey,” he called after her.
“Don’t be late. I might just fall asleep again.”
“Don’t you worry,” Jeff whispered back, hearing her climb the stairs to their bedroom.
When he was sure she was gone, he took a deep breath and opened the door again. Inside the small laundry closet, a stacked washer and dryer set was shining, brand new, still sporting their red Sears Roebuck & Co. tags.
Jeff chuckled, shook his head. What the heck has got into me? It’s obvious that I just had another dream. I made up that strange Indian guy, and the fact that Christmas was gone, while it still has to come. And it will be every bit as beautiful as the one I dreamt of. Exhaling a sigh of relief, he walked back to take another look at their Christmas tree before retiring upstairs to follow his wife’s invitation.
But, in the center of the living room, with his feet seemingly suspended in mid air, stood the man he had seen on the small television screen. He was dressed all in white, with dark, inset black eyes, and wearing a deep frown of displeasure. But what now surrounded him was even more astonishing: the ceiling of the room was gone, and so was the roof, which now seemed to open on a starry sky, too perfectly geometric to seem real.
“What... What are you doing here?”
“I told you that you would not be getting away with it, Jeff. And I cannot believe you are here, of all places.”
“Look, I don’t even know who you are, what are you doing at my house in the middle of the night?”
“Your house? You are truly believing this to be your house?”
“Of course it is.”
“Yes? Is that what you are thinking Jeff? I regret having to inform you of this, my friend, but you really sound like a selfish, self-obsessed maniac.”
“Who, me? If there’s a maniac here, it’s you, mister,” answered Jeff, pumping his index finger in the direction of the unreachable chest of the intruder, “and get down from there right now, before my kid wakes up, and I call the police!” What the heck is this? An elaborate parlor trick of some sort? Jeff jumped to reach to grab the man’s legs, to pull him down from his absurd levitating stance, but his hands went straight through the intruder’s body, like he was some kind of ghost. “Who… What are you?”
“I am Jeff, your roommate, of course, and your colleague. Or, I might say, former colleague, after we are done here. And you are the one who wrote this module, who hacked into my deep sleep clock giving to me one extra workday, so you could burrow here in your world of make believe. You are a sick, sick man. You must also have sabotaged your avatar’s memory. Isn’t that what you did, Jeff?”
“No, I did not, I don’t even know what you are talking about!”
“Daddy! Daddy, who are you shouting at?” Quick, light feet, running down the stairs.
“Jimmy, stay away from here!”
“Let us see if this is bringing back any memories,” said Indian Jeff, and his son, bounding around the corner in his lucky Christmas night PJs, disintegrated into a rain of sparkles.
Indian Jeff did something else and entire segments of the walls and floor around him started to dissolve into pixelated non-entities.
“What are you doing, you monster?”
“Actually, I have not a clue of what I am doing, I am just messing with your dashboard, turning off everything I can put my fingers onto.”
“Dashboard, what dashboard?” But he could see something in Indian Jeff’s hands, it was a big, clumsy wooden box, with dangling wires and sparkling valves, and at random intervals it looked like rows of glassy rectangles that appeared and disappeared in front of his hands.
“What’s all the commotion, darling?” It was Jane’s sweet voice from their bedroom upstairs.
But her voice vanished as the bedroom, like the rest of the house, was no more.
Only the laundry closet door remained, suspended in the grey nothingness of space. Jeff felt a deep pang at the pit of his stomach, fell to his knees, tears welling in his eyes. “What did you do to me, what did you do?”
“I am taking it all apart, Jeff, one piece at a time. Rather, I’d like to ask why did you do it, what could you have been thinking when you hacked into my deep sleep system for... for all that?”
“I told you, I don’t know what you are talking about!” But he knew it, now. It was all coming back, a rush of information so sudden that it made him wince in pain. Seven guys, all named Jeff, and he was just one of them. There was Sloppy Jeff and Chubby Jeff, Nerdy Jeff, Deadly Breath Jeff. Then there was Indian Jeff and the Jeffster, who was an extropian and wore his brain in a glass bowl that extended his cranial space. And then there was him, the leading programmer for his AlterNet section. They were all sharing their Corporate Apartment at the top of a sixties building in Manhattan, the whole space smaller than an average cubicle, taking turns: each one of them would be pumping on the generator pedals for an entire day a week, while the other six were kept in deep sleep in the closet, their avatars working all the while from the AlterNet without wasting superfluous calories.
Indian Jeff hit another switch, wiping out the preposterous starry sky, and now they were both suspended, seventy or eighty floors up, in mid air, as if in a glass cage. On his hands and knees, Jeff tried to control a violent bout of nausea. This is not real, he kept telling himself. But he knew very well that it was. Down in the deep canyons below he could spot the third avenue canal, boats floating in the dark muddy waters. Electrical wires were running below them from building to building, clothes were hung to dry on the thousand of windows, like many colored flags ready for the Macy’s Day parade.
So he was the lucky one, after all. Just below them, people without Corporate Affiliation were dying of pestilence and starvation in their junk boats navigating the canals that were drowning the skyscrapers of New York City. And here he was, eating every day. Well, perhaps eating was not technically correct, nutrients being delivered intravenously at least for six days a week. But that was good for you, wasn’t it? He was forty-six and he hardly looked a day older. And now he was about to lose all that.
“It is all over,” said Indian Jeff. “Do whatever you need to do to initiate waking procedures, while I report you to the Corporate Police.”
“I waited long enough pumping those pedals day after day. We are finished here.”
“No, we are not. Listen... I’ll cut you a deal. A great deal, so great you won’t believe it. Really, dude!”
Indian Jeff was wearing his customary frown again, his finger hovering over the virtual dashboard in front of him.
The house was quiet, but outside the Christmas lights still shone bright, burning like a halo of happiness around the day about to start. What a great Christmas this was going to be! Jane and Jimmy were still asleep upstairs, and Santa had totally delivered, he thought, looking at the piles of shiny packages under the tree. As a matter fact, it looked like he had just left. He pulled a curtain, and there he was.
“Ho ho ho!” said Indian Jeff, waving happily from his reindeer-drawn sleigh.
His beard looked more like a yogi’s woolen appendage than the rich cotton candy it was meant to be. He would render him a better one later, but for this time around it would do. Who knew if this would even last, how long would it be before one of the other five Jeffs figured out something had gone wrong, and that they were randomly stuck out there for double shifts. He had also heard that keeping one’s body in permanent deep sleep was not the healthiest of choices. But until then, they had all this. And it was perfect.
“See you tomorrow, dude,” he waved back, “and Merry Christmas!”