Jaymon stared at the nameless woman in front of him through the lenses of his virtual reality headgear. She was breath-taking. The sapphire blue of her sorrows, the blush of her bliss, the jade of her jealousy— all at once it was almost overwhelming.
She was a woman... though then again she wasn’t much of a woman at all. She had no face nor figure; she didn’t even have a voice. She was, instead, nothing more than an array of colors— each of which was meant to represent a distinct emotion. Everything that the woman had ever felt was scattered around the room, reduced to the many hues and shades of the rainbow. There were no memories, no attachments, no explanations for any one of the emotions. Each color was simply a feeling in all its potency. That was the point of this virtual reality program. The entire spectrum of human feeling was flayed from the individual and digitized, made to be accessible by anyone from anywhere. They called it Empathy.
Jaymon walked around the circular gray room and tentatively reached out to touch a section of pale yellow. As soon as his fingers brushed through the color, a warm sensation flowed into his left hand, strong and yet somehow subtle. The feeling started small and moved like honey, slow and sweet.
Trust. Jaymon thought. This is trust.
It had been so long since someone, anyone had trusted Jaymon. His parents certainly didn’t, nor did his little brother Justin. His best friend Eddie did… or at least he used to. But that was before the loveable dipshit overdosed on opioids last spring. Kate might've trusted Jaymon at one point, for a while at the start of their relationship. However, he’d botched that when she’d caught him stealing fifty dollars from her wallet. And then again when he’d spent that fifty dollars on a single gram of cocaine. He didn’t blame her, didn’t really blame any of the people in his life for having their doubts. He couldn’t. Hell, most of the time he didn’t even trust himself.
Without hesitation, Jaymon moved to submerge his whole body in the yellow light. He forced himself to concentrate on the color that surrounded him and the feeling that it produced, clearing his thoughts of anything else. The experience lasted for a minute, maybe two, and then it was gone. Afterwards, Jaymon took a deep breath and stepped back to look at the other colors: crimson…purple… magenta... he spun in a slow circle.
Though Jaymon had been using Empathy for a year now, its graphics still amazed him. While in the back of his mind he knew that he was still at the group home, standing in the middle of his bedroom, his brain was almost convinced by the reality before him: a small, unfurnished room littered with emotion after emotion. He stepped forward towards a small area of deep blue and stroked it softly with one hand.
Immediately, Jaymon’s chest tightened and his eyes dropped to the floor. He had tried various shades of blue before, but none so poignant as this. It was more than sadness, more than grief. He felt hopeless. Empty. He felt nothing and then still everything all at once.
Was depression a single emotion? Jaymon didn’t know. He could feel his palms shaking, sweat gathering at the edge of his hairline. It almost felt as though the emotion was boring holes in his personality, destroying him slowly. Then, right on cue, Jaymon was struck by an overwhelming desire to use. He needed a hit. Now. Of something, anything at all— it didn’t matter what.
Every nerve in his body begged him to move away from the blue light, but Jaymon didn’t budge. Instead, he counted to ten as slowly as he could. Then, with a shaking hand, he reached up and pressed the small square button on the right side of his head gear. The virtual room he was in disappeared and he was left staring at the dark screen of his goggles.
With the program off, it didn’t take long for the synthetic emotions to subside, but Jaymon still waited a few minutes to steady himself before facing reality. Then, he carefully removed the glove-like controllers from each hand and pushed his head gear up onto his forehead. Light streamed through the blinds of his bedroom window, striping his face and forcing him to squint. He shielded his eyes and glanced up at the clock.
Jaymon let out an audible groan—he’d missed breakfast by fifteen minutes. It was Tuesday, which meant that, any minute now, one of the rehab techs would be sent upstairs to drag him to therapy. If he left now, maybe they wouldn’t give him a write-up for tardiness. Grabbing a protein bar from the top drawer of the nightstand, he tossed his VR equipment onto his bed and bolted down the stairs.
* * *
“How are you feeling this week?” Dr. Allen asked, though Jaymon couldn’t hear her. As always, he was distracted by the enormous mole on her chin. He couldn’t explain it, but the fleshy mound seemed to stare directly into his soul.
“Jaymon?” Dr. Allen tried again.
“Hm?” he responded.
“I asked how you were feeling?”
Jaymon picked up a purple pencil from her cat-shaped mug and attempted to balance it horizontally on one finger.
“Alright,” he said. It was the same answer that he had given her last Tuesday afternoon... and the Tuesday before that. The same answer he had given her every Tuesday since she’d been assigned to his case thirteen months ago.
Most inpatients cycled through the group home in 90 days or less (a typical term of court-mandated rehab). Technically, Jaymon was on day 42 of 90… but he’d cycled through group home more than once. More than twice. Okay, several times actually. Frequent relapses meant that he’d been bouncing between outpatient and inpatient care for over a year now. In that time, he and Dr. Allen (Cheryl, though she preferred if he didn’t call her that) had become decently good friends.
“Do you feel like you’ve made any progress in the last seven days? Met any of your personal goals?” she asked. Dr. Allen struggled to get Jaymon to look her in the eye.
“You know Cheryl,” he replied, purple pencil clattering to the floor, “I really think that I have.”
Dr. Allen scowled and then sighed as Jaymon stooped over to pick up the pencil from under his feet.
“Listen, Jaymon. I would really appreciate it if we could focus this morning," she said. "I’ve got six more appointments to get through today, you know that.”
“Ah yes,” he said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on her desk. “But we all know that I’m your favorite." Jaymon flashed Dr. Allen a grin but she didn’t look amused. When she hadn’t responded to his comment a full minute later, Jaymon shifted uncomfortably in his chair. If he didn’t talk eventually, he worried that her mole just might.
“No, honestly,” he said, changing his tone. “I made some progress this morning.”
“With the VR program you mean?”
“Mmm. And what does that progress look like for you?” she asked, jotting down some sort of note in his folder. She cocked her head slightly, and for the first time Jaymon noticed streaks of silver in her auburn hair.
“Uh, well… you’ve known for a while now that I’m shit at dealing with emotional triggers,” he started.
“We’ve discussed that you struggle, yes,” she said without looking up.
“So, this morning I had like uh... um, well I would say that it was a pretty intense experience. You know, trying to manage negative emotions and whatnot,” he said.
Dr. Allen nodded, gesturing for him to continue.
“Anyway, I stuck it out for a few seconds even though I wanted to use like crazy.”
Jaymon paused, waiting for some sort of acknowledgement that didn’t come.
“That’s all,” he added. “That was my progress.”
“Oh, well okay then. Very good,” Dr. Allen said. She finished her last note with a staccato period and looked up. “Do you think that you would be willing to demonstrate today?”
Jaymon swallowed hard. Though Empathy created a virtual (and therefore synthetic) emotional experience, it still felt incredibly personal. Allowing Dr. Allen to monitor him while using the program always left him feeling a little violated— like someone had recorded the most intimate details of his life. He bit the inside of his cheek.
“Alright,” he huffed.
Jaymon stood up from his chair and grabbed the VR headset and controllers that sat on top of the filing cabinet. When he powered up the headgear, the fluorescent light above their heads flickered. He walked towards the open space in the center of Dr. Allen’s office and pulled the goggles over his eyes.
He pressed the little black square on his headset and a room blipped into existence. A floating text box in front of his face read: CHOOSE AN EXPERIENCE. Jaymon pulled on the generic gloves, which were slightly too small, and swiped at the air to his right: EMPATHY: ADVANCED. The text box morphed and prompted him for his personal information. PLAYER ID: 7465847, AGE: 23, GENDER: Male. A loading screen appeared and then morphed again to show hundreds of buttons, numbers that were meant to represent different “people”... or full sets of harvested emotions. Jaymon scrolled down a bit and tapped the number thirty-six, a male spectrum simulation, and waited patiently as his surroundings shifted.
Again Jaymon stood in a small gray room, the edges of which were faintly outlined by a light blue grid. The squares of the grid showed him where he could walk without bumping into any of the furniture in his real-world space (in this case, Dr. Allen’s office). Hovering all around him were colors, too many to count. Jaymon walked nervously up to a bright pink section and held out his hand.
Without warning, blood rushed into Jaymon’s face. He felt hot and tingly all over and… hungry?
Lust? Oh hell no.
Dr. Allen would not get to watch him squirm as that one played out.
Jaymon withdrew his hand and wiped it on his leg like it was dirty. Then, he took a step forward towards an area of dull gray. He swatted at the color like a wasp, now wary of unwelcome surprises. He felt a burst of something sour as his hand passed through the air, but nothing that seemed too uncomfortable. Satisfied, he moved to coat his entire body in the gray light.
This feeling, like trust, started slowly. It seeped into his being little by little, almost unnoticed. Drop by drop, something that felt like lead began to pool in his stomach. At first it was irritating, then it was painful. A minute passed, and then another, until the weight in Jaymon’s gut was nearly too heavy to bear. Unwittingly, he fell to his knees.
The gray light wasn’t just above him, it seemed to be pressing down now, forcing him into the floor. The pain wasn’t sharp, but rather a dull aching, a pressure that never seemed to let up. Again, Jaymon felt the need to use. He dug his nails into his palms and started to count.
One… Two… Three…
Before he reached the count of four, Jaymon caved.
“I can’t,” he gasped, pressing the button on his headset and falling forward onto his hands. “I can’t.”
He tore off the VR gear and rolled over onto his back. His underarms and neck were drenched with sweat, his heart pounding. Dr. Allen observed him from her desk chair, snapping Jaymon's folder closed with a frown.
“That’s perfectly alright,” she said. “Maybe next time.”
* * *
Back in his bedroom that evening, Jaymon sat on the floor with his VR gear on once more. He held his knees and fixed his eyes on the same gray light that had defeated him a few hours ago. Oddly, the feeling from his session in Empathy with Dr. Allen hadn’t totally subsided.
What. In the hell. Are you? He thought.
He wondered who this person was, Number 36, and what it was that left him feeling so… heavy? Strangely, the emotion wasn’t entirely foreign to Jaymon— not even before today. He couldn’t explain it, but the VR program had only seemed to amplify something that Jaymon had already felt, something that he was feeling every day.
Possibly. Or maybe it was something else entirely.