Ring Around the Pocked Full of Loves

Note: Don't have a date on this story, but it was before Gmail became a thing and after I moved to Sunnyvale which is still a pretty large window in the previous century....anyways, it's 3500 words.

"Sarah, could you bring me a glass of water, please? With killers in it, if you don't mind."

"Yes, yes, Brian. One second."

Sarah Fletcher sighed. This was only the eleventh time this morning that she had to abandon her heroine in the middle of a passionate kiss because Brian needed this or that. She felt one of those moments come on when she wondered whether saving her brother's life had been such a good idea after all.

Sarah rose from her desk and shuffled towards the kitchen, navigating with practice around stacks of boxes in her room and along the sides of the hallway.

Will I ever get to unpack? she wondered. It had been almost seven months since she and Brian had moved into this two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Oakland. He had offered her a mouthwatering deal: she would be his gofer, and he would pay for rent and most everything else.

Starving Romance Author Helps Resurrected VR Wizard to International Fame. The headline had formed in her head the moment Brian finished his proposal. Within a week, Sarah quit her day job as a nurse's aid and packed up her sunny hillside apartment. She moved in with her 'exceptionally abled' brother, as he called himself, to become a 'real writer', as she aspired to call herself.

From the piles of unwashed dishes on the counter, Sarah selected the least unappetizing glass and filled it with tepid water from the faucet. From a fat brown bottle that dominated the kitchen table she fished two pills and drowned them in the water, where they promptly dissolved with an impressive display of bubbles.

Back through the maze of boxes, Sarah made her way to Brian's room. She navigated around piles of electronic equipment, careful not to snag any cables, until she reached the space where her brother was twitching in his wheelchair.

"I put in two pills," she said, as she put the glass into his trembling hand.

"Thanks," Brian said in his artificial voice. A tiny computer in his throat extended its sensors towards his vocal chords and into his mouth, and built well-articulated speech from his crippled lip and tongue movements.

Brian downed the glass' contents without spilling a drop. Within seconds, his muscle spasms lessened and he returned to working. For a moment, Sarah watched her brother's hands spider over the keyboards and create fantasy worlds to order for his customers and himself.

He can't have been serious about checking out last spring, she thought. He jumped into his pool of acid just as I walked into the yard. And he wore rubber gloves to protect his precious hands.

They were still living with their parents, then, in a pompous country house. Brian bought fifty-six cans of drain opener. On Easter Sunday morning, he heated the water in the hot-tub to the maximum, tied his dumbbells around his waist, and dumped the buckets of drain opener granules into the small pool. The water started to steam and boil instantly. Brian had taken a deep breath, shut his eyes and mouth tightly, and jumped into the water butt first according to his narrative. The chemicals started to corrode his skin the moment he got wet.

Sarah saw coming onto the patio for some morning air and a quiet cup of coffee. She ran, grabbed the rescue hook, and used it to drag Brian out and over into the swimming pool. Thank god for weight rooms! She could still feel the acid fumes burn her throat and remembered how she had sounded like a hoarse crow for days afterwards.

The specialists at the burn center brought Brian's raw flesh back to life. The doctors considered it a miracle and congratulated him. But when her brother had faced a mirror for the first and last time since 'the accident', he had screamed loud enough to wake up the dead.

"Anything I can do for you?" Brian's words startled Sarah from her memories.

"Mother called," Sarah said. "She says Happy Birthday."

"Does she?"

"She says she's glad to hear you're doing well."

"Good for her. Did she ask me over for a birthday dinner?" Brian's voice betrayed no emotion, but Sarah knew otherwise.

"No," she said. Then she added, "She will get over it--some day."

"Some day when? I thought mothers were to love you no matter what. Some instinct thing."

Even Brian's synthesized voice sounded upset now. Sarah knew that if he had tears, she would now see some roll down his scarred cheeks.

"She loves you, Brian. She admires you, too. You are the one with the brains, with the career. Yo are the one who made it for all the fancy awards. She just has a really hard time looking you in the face. It's not only how you look, Brian, it's what she sees. And what she sees is herself failing to make you happy. She doesn't care whether manic depression's genetic or not. She blames herself for not noticing, for not saving you. She should've been the one to pull you out of the pool and hold your flesh lump of a head. She should've been the one to sit at your bedside and hold your hand while you were moaning in agony. Instead, she withdrew and castigated herself over her failure as a mother."

Brian didn't answer. Instead, he wiggled his fingers over the keyboard and continued working.

"What are you cooking up?"

Sarah didn't want to end the conversation with Brian all worked up. Talking about work always put them back on neutral territory. She didn't completely understand her brother's work, but ever since Brian had created an environment for her novel, when she couldn't get hr Mongolian setting to come alive, she truly appreciated his genius. Brian answered without interrupting his typing.

"I call it the Agape Project. It's going to be big. Haven't I told you about it?"

"Not a word."

"Must have told Jessica, then."

"And who, beg your pardon, is Jessica?"

Brian turned his head. His VR goggles made him look like a bug-eyed monster.

"Jessica's my girlfriend."

"Your what?"

"I said, she is my girlfriend."

"You mean, a cyber-buddy?" Sarah said.

"No, Sarah, my girlfriend."

This news had the same effect as if Brian had informed her that he had entered a triathlon: impossibility beyond disbelief. She said the first thing that came to mind.

"Does she know?"

"Well, sort-of. I've told her that my avatar isn't the way I really look, and that I'm on wheels, and that I have--limitations. She said that was OK with her, that we'd be creative, that--Wanna see her picture?"

Sarah nodded. Brian tapped a few keys, then turned one of the displays on his desk so Sarah could see better.

"That's her."

"She's fat!"

"No, Sarah, she's full of life, and she indulges in all aspects of living. She's rich in natural experiences, and some day I am going to meet her in person. "

Sara decided not not pursue the topic. So much for getting on neutral ground. Besides, she was jealous. She had not had a date in months, while her crippled and insane brother had fished himself a real girlfriend.

"Tell me more about that Agape Project."

"Well, you know what Agape is, don't you?"

Sarah hesitated. Agape was one of the four words for love in Greek, this one meaning altruistic love, of love of humanity, the unselfish kind.

"I have come to the conclusion that Agape, pure, untainted love with no strings attached in giving or taking, is the soul of the human body.

"Every person is born with a store of Agape. When we are loved or praised, we increase our stores. When life sucks, we use it up. The majority if people have a balance between using and filling their Agape store. When a person has no Agape left, then their soul is gone, and the body dies soon after. Most people whose Agape runs out don't wait for their bodies to waste away. They help it along. I had run out of Agape when I jumped into that hot-tub.

"At the hospital, every visitor was full of charity and my Agape store filled. For a few short weeks towards the end of my recovery, I felt better than ever.

"After I got home, the the influx of good vibes ended, I started to run low on Agape again. This time, I understand what I am losing, and I want it back.

"I am creating a virtual environment that can fill a person's Agape store. It's a complete sensory experience. I've tried the prototype on Jessica, and she says it's wonderful. The only problem is that I, the one who most needs it, can't use it."

Sarah raised her eybrows.

"It takes a full bodysuit to immerse into the VR. The nerve endings in my skin are dead. I can't feel any of the gentle touching, the caring holding that I programmed."

"How is this different from your other programs?" Sarah said.

"Sarah, this isn't just some entertainment or productivity environment. This is a life-giving artificial world. It's what I need to heal myself."


For the next few days Brian worked like a maniac, so Sarah put her own mind to writing and created a story of passionate jealousy and beautiful love in a future full of healthy people. When she brought her brother coffee or medication, she could see the data roll over the screens. She glimpsed references to Cleopatra, hormone research, and emotional psychology. Brian became increasingly irritable as he refused to sleep more than a few hours.

Sarah was blending Brian's fourth cocktail for the morning when she heard him should, "Eureka!"

She rushed over, banging her knee on a box along the way. .

"Sarah," Brian said, almost bumping up and down in his wheelchair. "I've discovered the real-world version of the Agape project! was searching psychology proceedings and found a cross-reference to a paper about perfumes and how their application causes a reaction in the pituitary gland. This linked with research into aroma-theory, which led me into a historical database where I found a description of Cleopatra bathing in the milk of asses to retain her youth, beauty, and vitality. A followed a few thousand more links and found that absorbing donkey milk through the skin might have a beneficial effect on Agape.

"So. I've ordered a hundred gallons of fresh ass' milk. Don't ask me how I got it. My source wanted serious VR in return for their efforts."

The doorbell rang.

It was the milkman.

Instructed by Brian, Sarah dumped the milk into the bathtub. She helped Brian out of his clothes and into the bath. It was eerie to see him slowly give up parts of his body to the opaque liquid. It looked like he was dismembering himself. The sickening smell of fresh milk filled the room. Sarah suppressed an urge to gag.

Brian sat in the milk for over an hour.

"I feel different, very different," he pronounced after he was settled back in his office. "But it's not enough."

Sarah was left to clan up the mess. What if she wrote The a romance about one of Cleopatra's cleanup girls? The plain girl would sneak a dip in the pharaoh's milk, transform into a beauty, and catch the eye of a prince who, after much soul searching would marry her and elevate her to Nobility.


"It all comes down to hormones," Brian said two days later, when Sarah brought him coffee early in the morning, her eyes still bleary. She had worked late on her milk romance.

"One is good old Testosterone. The other one is called Lactorin. It's been discovered in milk recently. Did you know that hormones are discovered at a rate of about two per day? Anyway, I've found and bought a serious amount of Lactorin for the price of my accumulated savings."

After the hormones arrived. Sarah filled the bathtub again with ass' milk and added some amount of them to the liquid.

"I feel better for every minute I spend in this brew," Brian said. "I've found the solution. But, there's a little problem. My grafted skin is getting soft and starting to dissolve. Probably the super-doses of Lactorin. It's even irritating the few pain receptors I have left. "

"Well, then get out!" Sarah ordered, and without waiting for Brian's consent, she pulled the drain plug. The precious liquid slowly disappeared, revealing a lobster-red Brian.

"What the--", said Brian.

"The stuff's dissolving you!"

"You just sent my silver bullet down the drain!"

"I don't care. It's killing you!"

"You mean, you rather have me alive and miserable?"

"Yes, Brian, in fact, I do."

"Sarah," Brian pleaded. "Don't you see? If I can stay in this solution long enough, I'll be whole again, just like after the hospital. And then I can be well for the rest of my life."

"If you survive--"

"Now, that I know there is a way, It's worth any price. I always wondered how Christians could let themselves be burned and quartered and ripped to pieces by lions. Now I understand. I you can get what you want the most by risking your life, the it's worth it. They wanted heaven, I just want my soul back."

"I won't help," Sarah said. "Nothing is worth torturing yourself to death."


Sarah immersed herself into her writing. to avoid thinking about Brian, who had been in his office for hours without calling for her once. s/he was almost done choreographing the final clash between the girl and She faced a tall, burly woman with a no-nonsense get-out-of-my-way look on her face.


"Brian," Jessica shouted, as she pushed past Sarah and headed straight for Brian's office. Sarah followed, her mouth frozen with an invoiced challenge.

"Here you are," Brian said.

Jessica only startled for a moment when she met him face to face, then she bent and gently kissed him on his mouth hole. Brian threw his arms around her and they held for a long time.

"Let's do it," Brian said.

Jessica turned and looked at Sarah. "You gonna help, or you gonna just stand and gape?"

'I'll call the police," Sarah said, knowing that her threat had no punch.

Her brother had invited this woman into his apartment and into his life, and there was precious little she could do about it.

"Non you won't," Jessica said. "You love your brother, and you want him to be happy. The Agape Pool is what he wants. if you're too much of a wimp to help him, stay out of the way."

"Please, Sarah," Brian said. "Try to understand. You saved me once, when I wanted to be saved. You don't have to save my body again."

"You're going to die!" And I am going to lose my writing life.

"Maybe, maybe not. In either case, I'll be whole. Don't you want to be whole? Your stories dream of it on every page. The only difference is what's broken in our lives. You need a man, and I need a soul.

"Let's get going, Jessica. First you have to make the solution."


Sarah rushed forward and grabbed Jessica by the arm..

Jessica was much stronger. Before Sarah could fight back, Jessica pinned her arms behind her back and pushed her towards the kitchen. There she forced her down on a chair, grabbed a dirty towel from the kitchen table, and tied her wrists to the chair.

"No more fuss or you are in trouble," Jessica said and left pulling the kitchen door shut.

Sarah fought to free he wrists, but Jessica had done an expert job. She considered screaming, and decided she didn't care for neighbors or police sticking their noses into their personal affairs, not even now.

Maybe if she cut the towel? She remembered more than one romance novel where the heroine had freed herself with a conveniently available knife. Sarah leaned forward until the chair lifted off the floor and her feet carried her weight. She turned around to the kitchen table and, careful not to lose her balance, used her nose to shift around the clutter until she uncovered a knife. She grabbed it with her teeth and realized that this was going to be way more complicated than the books made it appear. She sat down again to think, when Jessica returned.

"It's showtime," she said.

She grabbed the back of the chair, tilted it, and dragged it into the bathroom where she put it next to the toilet. From there, Sarah had a perfect view of the tub which was already filled with white liquid.

Jessica disappeared and returned, carrying a slightly drowsy looking Brian on her arms. Without his headset, his head looked like a basketball, decorated by a child to look like a face.

"Brian--," Sarah said, then choked on an upwelling of tears.

She forced them back before they reached her eyes, unwilling to fall apart in front of them.

"Don't worry, sis. I'll be okay, and the pills will keep the pain off. When I see you again, I'll be a new person."

"If I untie you, will you help me lift him into the tub?" Jessica asked.

"No," Sarah said. "No, I will not have any part in this. If I can't save you, I am sure as hell not going to help you stage another suicide."

Jessica lowered Brian into the white liquid. She bedded his head onto a bathtub cushion, making sure he could not slip under. Brian wiggled his head free, allowing himself to slide into the liquid all the way. Sarah jumped to drag him out and fell on her face.

"The snorkel," she said through broken teeth. "On the kitchen table."

Jessica rushed out and returned with a bright orange snorkel thing, custom-molded to fit Brian's face. She reached into the liquid, brought up Brian's head, placed the snorkel into his mouth hole, and let him sink back into his Agape Pool.

A moment later, Sarah heard the rush of a deep breath. Brian's left hand appeared out of the hormone milk and formed and OK sign.


"Oral shurgery hurts," Sarah said.

Not only did they have to fix her shattered teeth, she'd also cracked her jaw with that fall, and acquired a concussion. Enough to keep her in the hospital overnight, as eager as insurance was to kick her out the moment the doctors were done.

She wiggled her legs to get more comfortable in the soft hospital bed. On the other side of the separating curtain, her roommate moaned, and Sarah felt grateful for the twenty-fifth time today. Compared to what she had glimpsed of her, she had nothing to complain about.

"You oughta see your face," Brian said. "After your mouth and jaw heal up, you'll get a new nose, too. Any shape you want!"

"The kind that drives men crazy, then," Sarah said.

"Speaking of which," Brian pointed his finger at her like a parent reprimanding a child. "You, lady-sis. It's your turn to do something crazy that will turn out to be the best thing you ever did in your life."

Sarah nodded. She thought for a second. "OK, I'll send out my manuscript, as soon as I get outta here."

"Nah. Well. That, too. But that's not what I mean. Something better. That hero of yours. The guy who is in every story and novel you hack out. I want you to call him."

"Every story has a different hero."

"Different name, same guy."

"He's a product of my imagination! You know, that's why it's called creative writing."

"He's not. I've seen him. Talked to him about a neural net VR the other day."

"How? I mean--"

"I read your scripts. My mind put together the pieces. I had an image of your hero. I met Carlos. He matched. Tell me I'm right."

"I can't. He's a Berkeley linguistics professor."

"So? Find his number, and his email. Take a seminar!"

Sarah slowly moved her head, sideways.

"It's your turn, sis."

Jessica stuck her face into the room. "Time to go."

Brian waved at Sarah, then rolled towards the door. "Don't let me down, sis. See you tomorrow."

Sarah let her head sink into the pillows. Brian had risked his life and come out a new man. She could risk her pride and her shyness at the chance to get the dream hero that had defined her writing life for the past three years. /and she'd have her new nose to help.

Her cheeks tingled and the tingle spread until it reached her toes. Her imagination transformed her gray everyday outlook until it shimmered in bright colors, dominated by her red hair mingled with his golden mane.

Sarah indulged in the image for a few breaths, then she reached for her laptop and started to type.