Deep Grooves
by Carl Rafala
forum: Deep Grooves
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Deep Grooves



Strangely I end up at my bedroom door, as if that has been my destination all along. Somewhere between my next drug-induced escapade and real-life trauma I have been deterred by forces unknown, and now stand staring at its smooth, whitewashed surface.  

          Okay, I think. What was I doing before I ended up here? My mind draws a blank. Acknowledging the weirdness of the moment for what it is—weird—I decide to unlock the door with my thumbprint and peek inside. 

          The girl lays there, one arm reaching over her flaxen-haired head, legs stuck in a motionless kick, face to the side, looking like a swimmer frozen in mid-stroke. And she will remain that way, dormant, in STAND-BY mode, until her Doctor program has completed its function. 

          But how did a doll get into my keeping? Quite simple: I’d rescued her. 

          For the record I never use dolls, never went near them. But this one had no permit to be outside the Rim. But after that bar fight not far from here—of which I suffered a split lip and a few bruised ribs—she followed me like an obedient dog. Remarkably she could still walk well enough, despite the pounding she had taken, and her eyes had remained fixed on me. Me. 

          Suddenly her shoulders twitch mechanically, eyes flutter behind her lids, and she gasps. She does this a few times. I wonder what is going on behind those eyes…. 

          Someone presses into my back and I turn to see Reena, looking over my shoulder. “Playing with dolls?” she asks over the noise of the party. “After everything I’ve taught you?”  

          “Very funny.” I pull the door shut. 

          “I guess everyone wants to try, eventually.” 

           I give her a sideways glance. “It’s not what you think.” 

          “Of course.” She smiles and leans into me. 

          Reena is one of those quirky, perky, radical, post-graduate dropouts, average height, but with stunning blue eyes, soft, wide lips, and an enveloping smile. It was at some pub near the City’s edge where we’d first met. She’d been with a group of young dropouts, artists, musicians, would-be philosophers and the like—the pathologically nocturnal, terminally unemployable—and they debated everything, the accuracy of our historical records, the social power structure, dolls’ rights, you name it. 

          When I walked over she was arguing with some punk I would later come to know as Lucius. Much to her dismay, he kept going on about the nature of objective identity domains as they related to dolls. 

          I wasn’t interested in any of their bushwa. But as an excitable little nymph she’d debated with the heat of youth, with her whole self, with passion. It was the kind of passion I knew translated well under the sheets. 

           “Do you know what I’m really thinking?” she coos. It doesn’t take much for me to respond. 

          The noise of the party is reaching supersonic proportions, and it is elbow-to-elbow throughout my living room. The bedroom is out of the question, of course, but there is always the closet of a bathroom. I am about to make my suggestion when Jules flags me from the far corner of the room. I excuse myself and shove my way over. 

          “Are you crazy, Sumner?” Jules asks. “Don’t open that door. You want everyone to know?” 

          I often wonder why Jules still comes around; it had been ten years since his sister had divorced me. That was shortly after my daughter had died. Maybe Jules felt some remaining sense of familial obligation. It couldn’t have been our sparkling conversations. 

          “Yes,” I say. “I want everyone to know I have an illegal doll in my bed. Is that what you called me over here for? You could have text me.” 

          “I hate using it in closed quarters. Crossover, you know? Emotion overlap.” It’s a minor side effect of the interface link that sometimes happens. Here most have tuned their links to the unified channel to share the experience, heighten the sensation. 

          “Try turning your gain down,” I say. 

          “Try getting yours fixed. Those headaches you get aren’t normal.” 

          Neither is sleep deprivation. But I’m not going to tell him about that. “Thanks for the tip,” I say. 

          Jules cocks his head to my ear. “Did you know Miriam is here? She just walked in a minute ago.” He points his finger carefully over my shoulder. 

          Miriam isn’t due back until the next evening. She must have returned early from her little family weekend getaway. I turn to see her standing at the open patio doors, scanning the chaos. She catches sight of Reena making her way to the kitchen. Miriam looks directly at me, eyes drawn sharp. 

          I sigh. “The fun never ends.” 

          “One of these days you’re going to go too far.”  

          “Tonight might be the night.” 

          Miriam is tapping on her thumbnail. You are such an asshole, scrolls across my left eye screen. 

          Thank God, I respond. I thought I was loosing my touch.  

          I’m getting my stuff. 

          Yeah? Go ahead. 

          As I watch her head for the bedroom, I can just make out Jules moaning in agony as she thumbs open the door. Miriam stands there for a second, transfixed, closes the door, and whirls to glare at me. My skin flushes with the heat of her anger. 

          Making her way over to my side of the room, Jules quickly ducks away under the pretenses of getting a drink. Miriam takes me aside and into the hallway. 

          I am about to say something, but she puts her hand up to stop me.  

          “I don’t even want to hear it, Sumner. I’ve had enough humiliation to last a lifetime. I come home to another one of your stupid parties filled with your asshole friends, that slut of yours, and a thing in our bed. Honestly, I don’t know who you really are anymore. But I know one thing for sure, you’re a self-serving bastard who gets his kicks treating people like crap.” 

          “Are you done?” 

          “No!” She whips her hand across my cheek, hard. “Now I’m done!” 

          Like a wrestler she shoves her way back through the crowd, to the front door, and is gone. I stroke my cheek as Jules slowly walks by, shaking his head. 

          Yeah, I think. Whatever. 

          Reena is smiling at me from the kitchen door. The music is pumping loud, surging with aggressive energy, like me. As I make my way through the sea of bodies, I open my link to her frequency and am awash in her erotic glow. 

* * *

          Miriam leaves me that night, which is no real surprise. She has done it before. But I know it will be different now. I feel it, even though she has switched her link off. 

           She has returned to get her stuff; it is just past midnight, after everyone has gone. Without a word or sound between us, I sit outside on the stone patio and watch her throw her things in a bag and head for the door. She doesn’t slam it, as is her signature style. No. This time she walks out quietly and closes the door firmly, a tone of finality in its solid thump. 

          Then I feel it: guilt, slow burning in the back of my mind. 

          Maybe I should’ve told Miriam about the doll. Maybe I should’ve explained. 

          Maybe I should’ve explained a lot of things. 

          All I can do is sit, my fingers feeling the patterns on the cold stone, tracing the pits and grooves that live there, swirling around and around, over and over. 

* * *

          Jules calls me in the morning on my home system. Of course I’ve forgotten our breakfast meeting again. 

          “Come on,” he says. “You’ll miss the whole morning.” 

          “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I moan, but he has already closed the line. 

          I hate that urge to rush about, get things done, be here, do that. I prefer my life of limited comfort and time in great measure. The dole offers me just enough of an existence to be satisfied. I’d tried going back to work when I began seeing Miriam, but gave it up after a short while. I already own my modest apartment, and with my previous debts repaid, I never could see the reason to have more than I needed. 

          Despite my reluctance to move I get up and rustle into some clothes and look in on my “guest.” The doll is still unconscious, but I notice some of the cuts and bruises have disappeared. Before leaving for the tram station I check my receiver for held messages: nothing from Miriam. I delete the rest. 

          I meet Jules at the usual small café near the shopping district. The place operates out of the corner of what was once an old foundry building. It had probably been one of the first buildings to go up after the First Born had arrived here from wherever it is we come from. 

          Once they would have torn down such an old building. But everything is recycled here; turned into other things….
          Sitting in a window booth we both order the same plate: reconstituted scrambled eggs with slices of something that tastes like ham, some waffles, and coffee. We eat in relative silence. Jules picks at his breakfast. 

          “You eat about as well as I sleep,” I say. He pushes his plate to me. 

          “So you enjoy yourself last night?” he asks. 

          “Don’t I always?” 

          “Guess so.” He waits, wanting more details, about Miriam. 

          “I’m on to bigger and better things, if that’s what you want to hear.”  

          “Really?” he snorts. “Who is this Reena? Some radical post-grad dropout with delusions of adequacy. ‘Free the dolls,’ and all that shit. Honestly.” 

          “You’re almost funny.” I finish my coffee. “Though it pains me to admit it, you’re right. She’s a bit loony, that one. But I’m not exactly interested in her mind.” 

          “You ought to try thinking of someone else for a change.”  

          “Oh?” I shovel eggs into my mouth. 

          “Miriam is a good person with a big heart. She didn’t deserve that. No one does.” 

          I scoff at his naiveté. His sister and I had been married almost eleven years, our daughter Janina had been born five years previous. My wife had worked in some boring municipal office, cataloguing data; my domain was a delivery truck. We didn’t earn a lot, hardly anyone does. But we plodded on like everyone else, deep in debt and barely one-step ahead. 

          And Janina was a moody girl, a difficult girl, introspective, socially awkward, didn’t have many friends, didn’t confide easily, and hardly ever left her room. We thought it a typical adolescent phase. Then one day I came home early to make sure she went to—uh—work, and found her in the bathroom. She had cut her wrists. She was fifteen years old. 

          “There are a lot of things no one deserves,” I reply. “It’s a cruel world.” 

          “Yes it is. But you don’t see me acting like an asshole.” 

          “Maybe you should try it sometime.” 

          He ignores that. “I hate to break it to you—” 

          “—then don’t.” 

          “—but like most things in your life, Reena is a distraction.” 

          I chew his food and stare at him. “From what?” 

          “From yourself.” 

          “Oh, that’s brilliant.” 

          “Who are you, Sumner?” he utters incredulously, but more to himself than to me. 

          “An asshole. You said so yourself.”  

          He doesn’t hear; his eyes are distant. “She’s a lot like my sister, actually. Miriam.” 

          I feel my head go down between my shoulders. His sister, my wife, disappeared soon after Janina’s death. No one could find her. Not even Jules. Months went by; then I received an electronic notice, divorce papers from a solicitor. I tried looking for her once but she must have changed her identity. 

          “I’m not hunting for the next Mrs. Sumner Lothian, thank you.” 

          “Then why did you get involved with her?” 

          I wave his question away. 

          He fidgets in his seat, then bounces up out of his chair and returns with a fresh cup of coffee. “So what’s with that doll, anyway?” The words spill out of his mouth. 

          “I already told you. And I’m not banging her.” 

          “Well you bang just about everything else. Besides that’s what they’re made for.” 


          “So why’d you help her anyway? I mean she’s just a doll. You can kill one and it’s not even murder. Who cares?”

          I put my fork down. “I don’t think a guy needs to call his buddies to help him kick the crap out of a toy. Do you? So why don’t you sit back, relax, and enjoy a nice big cup of shut the hell up.” 

          Suddenly there is a commotion outside. At the corner of an intersection stands a doll, pale, ghostly, big eyes, crimson lips, tight black body stocking, and a work permit fixed to her brow. The doll’s body is shaking, crawling with spasms; she walks limply in a circle, dazed, reaching out for someone, anyone. No one touches her, of course. Then she grabs the lamppost and begins banging her head against it as she shakes, words, unintelligible, shoot from her mouth. 

          “Berking Syndrome,” Jules says to no one in particular. 

          Berking is short for what sometimes happens to organic A.I.s and dolls. Sometimes, inexplicably, they just go berserk. 

          My head twitches with pain, and there is a burning behind my left eye. 

          “You really ought to get that fixed,” he says.  

          “Yeah, you think?” The problem is that I don’t have the available cash just yet to get it fixed by a pro. But I won’t tell him that. I’m not looking for a handout from him. 

          I feel like my head is being slammed with a hammer; I know the pain isn’t going away anytime soon. 

          Leaving Jules with the tab I take the next tram home, open the door—and wake on the floor under the cool light of a full, pale moon. Although the throbbing in my head has wound down to a dull pulsing I lay still, waiting for my breathing to ease and the quivering in my ribs to stop.

* * *

          I had had a dream. It was an odd dream because it had none of the opaque characteristics and semidetached qualities of a dream. This was something far closer to the surface, something that lacked distance and engaged all my senses at a level of awareness uncommon to the dream. 

           The dream was of the dirty outback town I grew up in, and I was on the dirt road that stretched onward and into town. My family’s quonset hut stood at the end, coated with dust, shining duly in the dry sun. My parents were on the step waiting for me. But something was wrong; they were confused, frightened, and a bit angry. With me. 

          “I won’t do it!” I said. 

          “Just this one time,” said Dad. “One time and we’ll be free. No more collectors. We can even move away. Sell this place and try to get closer to the City where there’s more work.”

          “No!” I knew I was walking away from the hut, jacket heavy with a full canteen, and there is a knife, and food wrapped in paper. One hand held a sack slung over my back. 

          “Where do you think you’re going to go?” 

          “You said no more last time.” 

          “You have to use what’s available,” he said. “You’ll understand one day.” 

          “Hun,” Mom called, and then broke into a cry. She never said much, ever. Never stood up to Dad. Maybe if he’d actually tried to fix the equipment around here, he could have farmed something. Anything. He could have done some real work instead of pissing away the little money Mom earned cleaning solar panels. 

           “Look,” his voice got hard, as it always did. I heard his footsteps coming after me. “You’ll do what you’re told. You’ll go to work, you hear?” He grabbed my arm. “If you’re good, this client could set us right—” 

          “Let me go!” I struggled to get away, dropping the sack. “I hate you!” 

          “Listen you!” He whipped me around. I reached into my jacket as I swung to face him and pulled out the knife. I dug it deep into his ribs, screaming as I did it. 

          Quite suddenly I woke, consciousness spilling up in a desperate gasp. 

* * *

          And then I am startled by a voice beside me. 

          “You called for me?” 

          Sitting up I turn to look directly at the doll, standing there, hair flowing about her shoulders, big and wide green eyes. Her clothes are dirty and stained with blood. 


          “Direct transaction required, payment in full. No credit. No pay-as-you-go. You called for me?” 

          “Uh, no,” I clear my throat and brace myself for the pheromones that might come spraying from her pours, an invisible, potent elixir. “No, I didn’t.” 

          She just stands there, looking at me: flesh thin over bone, skin pale upon pale, trapped in youth. So young. So childlike. She will stay that way until her lifespan ends (or something worse happens to her). 

          Her brow furrows, eyes dart back and forth in thought. A puzzled expression washes across her face. She attempts something that sounds like a small laugh, and says, “Sometimes, I get confused.” 

          “Don’t we all. So why are you up? You still don’t look well enough.” 

          “I’ve slept my allotted time. I usually work these hours.” 

          “Piece of crap Doctor.” I mutter. I can see she is not all “there” yet. Damn thing probably hiccupped and woke her prematurely. 

          Her eyes dart back and forth again. The awkwardness of the moment threatens to drown me. I try to think. I can think! No pheromones to muddle the brain. Not all of her systems are fully online. I’m relieved. 

          “What are you doing in the City without a work permit?” I ask. Every city has a Rim district for dolls, just outside the boundary limits. If you want a doll, if you are into that kind of thing, that’s where you go. 

          She attempts another laugh. “I don’t remember.” 

          “I pulled you out of a pretty nasty situation.” 

          A pause. “I don’t remember.” 

          I remember they live in conditions worse than most of us, and she had come up here for a reason. Work permits are not freely available, and human prostitutes don’t care much for the competition. I pull out my cash chip. For an instant there seems to be something like elation in the fibers of her coded flesh. She bends down and holds out her wrist. I place the chip on the small pad there, and tell it how much to transfer. 

          “That should cover any expenses you racked up while being out of commission.” 

          She smiles, bright and beaming. The brothel manager that owns her will be pleased. 

          “I suggest you reactivate your Doctor and go back to bed for a few days. Don’t answer the receiver or the door. Just stay in there. Okay? I’ll take you back to the Rim when your program is done.” 

          “Okay.” She switches on her link’s frequency and dabbles with her thumb keypad. 

          “So what do you call yourself?” 

          “What would you like to call me?” 

          I feel dirty with her words. “No. What do you call yourself?” 

          She stands blinking, and repeats, “What would you like to call me?” 

          I look out at the metallic spires of the City, glistening ghostly with silver in the full moonlight. 

          “Forget it,” I say, and I’m sure she does. 


          I don’t sleep the rest of the night. Don’t want too. So I make some coffee, sit on the floor, and watch the moon carve its path across the black beach of sky. Hitting my receiver I call Reena. I keep the two-way visuals and the voice off, using only text. 

           It’s one in the morning, she responds after a minute or two.  

           “Like you’re asleep.” 

           You’re right. I’m not. 

           I am silent, thinking about how to respond to that, or if I should. After all we have an agreement: no strings.

          Hold on, Sumner. Let me get some privacy. There is a moment of dead air. Then the blue words return. I’m back. Everything okay? 

           “What do you think? I woke up on the floor. I didn’t even make it to the couch.” 

           I did suggest you have my man, Lucius, look at your link again. Remember?

           Her man Lucius. Of course I remember. 

           “Illegal. He’s not licensed,” I reply. “And nothing seems different since the first time he looked at it. Does he even know what he’s doing?” 

           Since when do you care about legalities? Besides you can’t afford a licensed tech. 

          “Okay you got me. But nothing seems different since the last time he looked at it. Does he even know what he’s doing?” 

          More than you. 

          Whatever. “There’s something else.” I tell her about the dream.  

          That’s not unusual for you. 

          “No. This was…different. Vivid. Almost like a simulator.” 

           A pause. Does the doll always have her link on, even when she’s down? 

           “How do I know? Wait. Are you telling me I shared crossover with a doll?”

          Well your link is damaged. 

          “Dolls run on an isolated frequency. Not even their pimps can access it.” 

          It’s still possible you could have picked up some trace signal. It’s happened before, just once that anyone’s ever known of, about a decade ago. It’s documented. 

          “Really? And what happened?”

          The guy went berserk and killed himself. 


          You asked. It’s like this Sumner: your subconscious was mulling over something, and the doll was probably reprocessing the night she was roughed up, and your memories crossed. Simple. 

          “But that’s what dolls are: simple. They’re not made to be that complex, cognitively.” 

          Dolls may not be the brightest candles in the box, but they are not phenomenal zombies either. They process new information and react to stimuli like any other complex organism. And if they are processing during shut down, which of course they are, that means they dream. 

          I wonder which parts of the dream belonged to the doll, and which were really mine. 

          “Do you really think they should be free?” 

          Have I ever sounded like I was joking? 

          “But they’re just toys, right? I mean does it really matter?” 

          It matters that they are intelligent enough to function in our society. They learn, Sumner; they adapt; they can grow. They display true emotions, even survival instincts. That’s more than I can say for any toy. 

          “Objective identity domains,” I mumble. 


          “Huh? Oh. Just remembering.” 

          Yes. Well pay no mind. Lucius fancies himself some sort of metaphysical philosopher. He’s only half right, but of course he doesn’t think so. 


          Static. It’s all just talk, Sumner. 

          “Is it?” 

          Do dolls have identities? Yes. Do they develop personalities? Sure. I’ll agree with that. But that’s just natural with any cognitive being, it’s not something left over from a previous life, something embedded in some sort of living universal fabric. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. 

           “Maybe you’re right. Sometimes I think…I don’t know.” 

           It’s all talk. I deal in fact; Lucius deals in fantasy. Janina’s dead. It wasn’t your fault. 

           “Are you sure? You don’t know—” 

          Stop punishing yourself. Just face up to it, Sumner. You did what you did, and that’s that. 

          But did I have to do it? Sell a dead girl’s flesh for a clean slate? Our daughter. Funny that she would be worth more dead than alive. 

          What I did was not typical, but not that uncommon either. We were in debt more than we let anyone realize. I was trying to help my wife. I was trying to help us both. 

          If I could hear her sigh I would have. Hell what do you want? 

          Mouth moves without my permission. “I want my family back.” 

          Reena has nothing to say. 

          “Yeah,” is all I can utter. 

          Sumner l must go. Consider letting Lucius look at your link again. 



          “Don’t suppose I could see you tonight.” 


          Tomorrow, the blue words repeat, and she breaks the connection. 

* * *

           For a while I abandon my home to spend most of my nights walking, as I did long ago. Walking without any sense of direction, walking without destination, yet with compulsion, as though looking for something, some burrow not noticed before, some pathway never taken. I eat take-away, and sleep where I can, in cheap motels, sometimes in alleys. I still dream, but not with the reality of that previous night…. 

          Dawn is about to arrive now. The thin crimson line of awakening runs across the sandy horizon, between the buildings of the City. The air is chill. I walk the near empty streets, cloak about my shoulders, hunching into it, the smell of cold, damp stone in my nose. 

           Moisture, formed during the cool nights, trickles through the grooves in the rock-made pavement, the liquid whirling and swirling its way through the many furrows. Maybe in a million years the water will erode the stones into new shapes, cut new pathways. But changing shape does not change the essence of the thing itself, and new grooves turn upon themselves, snake in and out, around and around. What’s old is new. What’s new is old. What comes around goes around, so they say. 

           Like this City. Its various personalities twist, bend, intertwine, and finally part, only to meet up again in another quarter, in another trough, in another time, altered but still the same. 

           I finally stop at a public receiver to check my house messages. There’s nothing there, except for a message from Jules. I delete it. 

           Entering my access code again, I dial another number. Miriam’s pale morning face comes into view. 


           “I thought you might’ve blocked my number.” 

           “I thought I had,” she replies. “You look like crap.” 

           “You should smell me.” 

           “Rather not. Where are you? What happened—No. Forget it. I don’t want to know.” 

           I want to say that I hadn’t been out partying for nights on end, that I hadn’t woken up from a drug-induced coma in some dingy part of town, in some strange woman’s bed. I want to say these things. But I don’t. 

           Seconds tick away in the chilled air. Miriam says, wistfully, “So why are you calling me?” 

           Mouth is stuck for words. “Seemed like a good idea,” bleeds out. 

           Awkward pause. “I can’t be your punching bag anymore,” she says breathlessly. “Sumner. Okay?” 

           All I do is shrug. 

           “So that’s it, huh? Your answer.” 

           “I didn’t give you an answer.” 

           “Didn’t you?” 

           “Don’t put words in my mouth, Miriam.” 

           “And don’t do me any favors. You think I should feel touched by your call? Wanting? Forgiving? Think again. I don’t need an apology. All I want to know is that you are going to try; try to be the man I once knew.” 

           Mouth moves before brain, as usual. “And whom did you think you knew?” 

           She sighs. “Same crap, over and over.” 

           Over and over. 

          “Honestly, Sumner, I once thought I saw something in you, something fundamentally honest and good. Was it all a game? A clever ploy to get some action? All those women. Just choose someone, Sumner. Anyone. Can’t you do that?” 

           “Of course,” I snort. “When choosing between the lesser of any two evils, I always choose the one with the best tits.” 

           She hangs up.  

* * *

          I am back home now, at my place. Everything is shadowy with dark; a breeze comes through a half-opened window, chattering. Walking past the bedroom door now. I won’t open it and look inside. She’s there. I know it. I feel it.

          No matter how hard I try to blank out my thoughts my mind keeps churning, swirling, round and round, over and under.  

           Sitting in a chair, I try to distract my mind by listening to the night…. 

          .…and wake up, sweating, breathing hard, heart pumping, fingers clenching in an unknown panic, images fading like a screen turned off. Something weighs down on me, the weight of memory, threatening to crush me, cut off my air.

          Then I notice it, crouched down in a shadowy corner of the room. A small figure, knees drawn up, arms wrapping around them, and it rocks back and forth, this figure. The doll? No. A small girl, I realize. Much smaller. 

          I desperately want to speak, to say I’m sorry, so sorry, but nothing comes out. The air is full of her shivering sobs. 

          Finally I get up and I take a few hesitant steps toward her, my hand outstretched. 

          There is no one there. 


[to be continued]


copyright 2003 Carl Rafala.

Carl Rafala is was born in Connecticut in 1970. He earned his BA in English from Albertus Magnus College, and then spent the next five and a half years in South Africa. He then earned his MA from the internationally renowned University of South Africa in 2000; his dissertation was an intertextual dialogue between the Homeric Epic and the science fiction text.

Having written for most of his life, Rafala finally got around to sending his work out, subsequently finding publication in small presses by the end of the 1990s. He has taught Freshman English at Quinnipiac College.  You may purchase a collection of his work, Wildflower, at