It All Started . . .bytryst©
It started with an antiquated copy of Paint Shop Pro 2.0. It probably would have worked if I'd been able to afford Photoshop, too. At any rate, I began to dabble with pics I found on the web or usenet -- enhancing this tree, removing that boulder, cloning a water feature from another landscape. Then, on to shots of people. I became pretty good, considering the limitations of the software.
I was hooked. Digital photo manipulation replaced all my other hobbies and most of my friends and girlfriends. After about a year, I managed to upgrade to 3.0. Shortly thereafter, it happened for the first time. I'd been periodically emailing an old high school lady friend -- really, only a friend. We idly traded news and remembrances once a month or so. She'd sent me a few pics of herself and her family, including a bikini shot from their vacation of Florida the winter past. Chuckling to myself, I loaded it into my editor and began to play. Nothing obscene, mind you, but I shaved maybe 20 pounds from her belly, hips, and thighs, smoothed out her complexion, and lightened her hair.
Pleased with my improvements, I sort of drifted away mentally, admiring Chloe's refound beauty. It suddenly seemed so real. I shook my head, laughed away my mini-hallucination, and closed the file. Six or eight weeks later, Chloe shipped me her next update, crowing about having lost so much weight that she had her hair done and felt like a teenager again. Attached was a new bikini shot.
My head swam. Apart from her pose and a different background, it might have been my doctored pic. I don't know exactly how long I sat with my version of her side by side with the new true Chloe, emptily staring and the uncanny similarity. Shaking myself out of my near trance, I got up and fixed myself some dinner.
A few days later, I cropped her revitalized head and chest and enlarged her for a better look. She did almost look like a teenager. She'd become even prettier as a woman than she'd been growing up. I imagined her dressed to the nines for a night out. Compositing her glowing face, with appropriate new makeup, onto a stock runway model's body, I was again amazed for long moments by the seeming reality of my work. Breaking free of my fantasy, I shot a sincere, congratulatory reply back to my old friend
Three months later, another email with attachments arrived. She apologized for not keeping in touch, but she'd been so busy with her home life and new career that time was short. Shortly after her last message, she'd been invited to participate in a charity fund raiser as a model. She said she'd never had so much fun out of bed. She'd been talked up by an agent in the audience, and was now doing shoots as often as she could get away from family responsibilities.
My pleased-for-her smile kind of solidified on my face as I opened her jpegs. There she was, in full, glossy glam. The images were quality scans of professional portfolio shots. I freaked. I shouted a best unrepeated curse and knocked the chair over getting away from the computer. It was just too fucking weird. It was as if . . . My mind veered away and I decided that maybe I shouldn't play with people's pics for a while.
But I worried over the events almost obsessively. What if it wasn't coincidence? The correlations seemed too exact not to have been causal. And the very idea that I might have somehow brought about changes in Chloe's life scared me shitless. It might be an adolescent's wet dream literally come true, but if you aren't appalled by the notion of tinkering with something as complex as reality, then you must be either brain dead or a politician -- or is that the same thing? Inadvertently fucking up someone's life with a daydream isn't my idea of a good time. I mean, what if I'd been horny, and slapped Chloe's into some sleazy streetwalker's scene? I firmly, with all my soul, believe in karma. Ultimately, no matter what, you reap what you sow. "Do no harm" are words to live by.
I couldn't leave PSP alone for long, though. Even as my mind ran over the insanity of it all, I began dabbling again, with safe subjects, and without ever experiencing that strange reverie as I stared at my techie art. So, since that seemed okay, I decided to be scientific about the problem: take a known, work it over and see if I could change something innocuous. Like the flowers in the neighbor's side yard. Iris, they were, and just coming into bloom. I made them larger and much more vivid on-screen. I visualized, trying to recapture whatever (if anything) I'd done before. Outside the bedroom window, nothing happened.
So I tried a picture of a co-worker I nabbed from the company website. Jim occupied the cube across from mine. I didn't know him very well, but he was in my line of sight five days a week. I flopped a smiling shot from an awards banquet and grafted his watch from his left to right wrist. The next morning, sure enough, he was explaining to a crony about how his grandson had helped him get dressed for work, insisting on strapping his rolex knock-off on the wrong wrist and upside down.
I took the rest of the day off sick, and I wasn't malingering. After I deleted Jim's photo from my hard drive, I spent the rest of the day in bed, dozing my way from one half-nightmare to another. Deleting it must have been enough, I thought feverishly, for the next day Jim's watch was righted.
As I sat shakily in my cubicle that fateful Friday, I considered -- briefly -- getting psychiatric help, but opted out of that scenario. While it works miracles for some, thorazine is not my friend. I was just pulling myself together when the office manager hag dropped by to harass me about three inconsequential typos in a report I filed the week past.
I plead weakness. The bitch had for some reason singled me out as a fresh hire, and had been favoring me with sniping remarks, unfounded vague accusations, and less than glowing reviews for three years. The instant her back was turned, I opened my personal laptop and downloaded her face from the company website in three-quarter profile. An adult site featuring mature housewives offered me a quick sample of a severely corseted woman of Maude's slightly chubby body type servicing a well-hung black man. By the time I finished, Maude's heavily made up eyes were glazed with lust, and her bright lipstick was smeared across her face. Her stocking clad toes were curled inside her clear platform pumps as she orgasmed.
Maude showed up for work the next day looking more like a worn out hooker than a frumpy middle-aged office manager. While everyone else snickered behind her back, I quailed in my cube, racked by guilt. Yeah, she was a heartless, dried-up old bitch, but she didn't deserve what I'd done to her -- or imagined I'd done. Still, it was with mixed emotions that I deleted her altered photograph. In its stead, I did her up as a more kindly matron, removing some of the harshness from her natural features, trying to put some sincerity and compassion into her face.
The results were oddly mixed. The following day, while she'd toned down her makeup a half dozen notches and substituted more modest heels for the unholy stilettos she'd worn the day before, she was still obviously more of a sexual creature than before I tampered with her image. Also, she was much nicer, acting like a human being instead of a sniping asshole. Curiouser and Curiouser, I thought.
Several weeks, a lot of thought, and some cautious experimentation later, I came to several hesitant conclusions.
First, I could not manipulate objects. Rocks, thimbles, dollar bills, and cars just sat there. Only people were susceptible. Cats, dogs, and parakeets seemed immune to whatever the hell I may have been doing. People I knew responded in various degrees, and most -- though not all - strangers were unphased.
I didn't think my power was godlike. Maude might have always had a strongly sexual side that she'd never displayed in the workplace -- or, perhaps, it had been deeply repressed. I may have just freed her libido, and, once out of the cage, mere deletion of the pic hadn't re-imprisoned it. Also, her humanity could have merely surfaced with my nudge.
My investigations definitely indicated that I couldn't manufacture a silk purse from a sow's ear. I didn't seem to be able to radically alter reality so much as influence it. If a seed of something existed in a person, I could help it germinate, but was unable to plant the seed directly. I wondered if poor Maude had really tarted herself up and jumped some black dude. But, on second thought, I didn't really want to know the answer.
With judicious use of Paint Shop Pro, I cautiously altered my situation a bit. I encouraged Maude and a couple of VIP's to recognize my worth to the firm with a cordial smiling group shot. I tried to be scrupulously honest in my machinations. I didn't make myself a Vice-President, but I did manage to get a raise and promotion that Maude had unfairly denied me by picturing her revising my personnel reviews. I encouraged a car salesman to fight with his sales manager for an incredible deal on a new Mustang on my behalf via an image of he and I signing the right contract. Always, I rigidly adhered to my "Do no harm" mantra. Even when my current lady friend dumped me, I resisted the impulse for vengeance.
Then I had the good luck -- or misfortune, depending on your point of view -- of meeting a woman named Bridgette Falcone at my favorite watering hole one Friday evening. Okay, so she was also a regular there, and I may have had something to do with the way she ended up on the bar stool next to mine. She'd intrigued me for months. She was in some ways a female version of myself. Decent looking, extremely slender, but introspective enough to seem isolated. She habitually and effectively diverted any male interest directed her way. The smile upon her face when I delivered my lame get-to-know-you line was really nothing like what I'd sketched upon her face from the sly candid I'd snapped with my cell phone, but once the ice was broken, we struck up an only slightly stiff conversation, and discovered that we had enough mutual interests to pass the time.
While it was apparent that she was lonely -- maybe even desperately so - her refusal of my suggestion that we do dinner sometime was so violent that it shocked both of us. She hurriedly, with what looked like tears in the corners of her eyes, tried to soften the blow. I seemed like a nice guy, and she'd had a good time chatting, but she didn't go out. With anyone. Ever. Embarrassed and distraught, she excused herself and nearly ran out of the bar, earning me a glare from Harry, the barkeep. Despite my gentlemanly behaviour, I felt like a masher.
At home later that evening, I reinforced Bridgette's attraction to me a little, with the aid of a couple of more candid images. Just nudges, mind you. Her hand in mine as we walked together. A truly radiant smile as we faced one another across a restaurant table. Still, I nearly jumped out of my skin as I hit the "save" button on the last image and my cell phone chimed. Bridgette was intensely apologetic about her behaviour. I deserved an explanation for her rudeness She'd truly enjoyed getting to know me. Was I still interested in dinner the following night?
I tried to submerge my shame as I eagerly accepted and arranged to meet her at a ridiculously upscale restaurant downtown., all too similar to what I'd cloned into the just completed digital image. Romantic fantasies began to play through my head, but I stayed away from my computer.
While the radiant smile I'd created was apparent when we met, her hand felt clammy in mine, and, as the evening wore on, her friendliness became more mechanical, her cheer forced. We both had a glass too much wine before adjourning to the lounge next door and finding a quiet place away from most of the noise.
The silence between us was suddenly deafening. After thirty almost unbearable seconds, she opened her purse, extracted an envelope, hurriedly slid it towards me and leapt up, nearly running toward the ladies' room. Stunned, I watched her depart, then reflexively picked up the envelope. It was addressed to her, from a medical clinic. Inside was a standardized form under the letterhead of one James Laughton, MD, dated nearly two years ago. It reported, clinically, that the results of her blood test reconfirmed the fact that she was HIV positive, and urging her to make an appointment with him as soon as possible.
Light dawned in my dim wits. Thus her isolation, her refusal of my initial invitation. I had the distinct impression that I was the only person who knew her shameful secret. Impulsively, I pulled out my cell and snapped shots of the form and envelope, my mind a mass of roiling, conflicted thoughts. They hadn't calmed when she returned and stiffly resumed her seat.
"You're still here," she whispered hoarsely, refusing to look at me through tear-reddened eyes.
"Where else would I be?"
"Away. Far, far away."
"Want to tell me about it?"
"No." But she did anyway, in flat, unemotional terms. Her words came faster and faster, pouring from her like putrid bile. Her murder, as she called it, was the gift of her ex-husband, who'd contracted the disease from one of the hookers he'd frequented, without her knowledge, throughout their relationship. He hadn't told her he'd tested positive for three years, until he became symptomatic with AIDS and she'd been contacted by public health officials.
"Devastated" is such an overused word. Usually, it's used to describe something relatively trivial. Obviously, not so in this instance. She'd immediately filed for divorce, but there was nothing left of their marital assets by that time, and she'd barely escaped being held liable for his astronomical medical fees. As it was, she was barely scraping by, struggling to make minimum payment for her own treatment regimen.
By the time she was finished, she was drained. She looked ill. "I have to go now," she whispered.
I grabbed her hand as she reached for the medical report. She stiffened, looked on the verge on panic. "Don't touch me!"
I released her, but shook my head. "Holding your hand can't give me AIDS."
"Look, Paul, you're a nice guy. If things were different, maybe . . . well, they aren't different. I'm a walking dead woman. Do us both a favor and leave me alone."
"No. I won't. I can help."
Her laugh was something ripped from a horror film sound track. "Yeah. Right." She stood and started away.
"I'll call you," I said, loud enough to attract attention. She gave no indication of having heard.
Here's another word enfeebled by over-use: shock. I found myself on the sidewalk with only the vaguest memory of paying the tab, and home with virtually no recollection of driving. Nothing seemed to be happening in my brain. All my higher mental functions had clicked off, leaving my subconscious in charge. AIDS. Walking dead woman. I can help.
No overt thought. Download images. Clean up. Higher contrast. "Positive" becomes "negative." Appropriate text corrected to the becoming reality. Date changed. Save. I think I heard myself giggle softly. Yes, save.
I left a brief message on her voicemail. "I know you'll think I crazy, but get retested, then call me."
It took six weeks to hear from her. She sounded brittle, frightened. "What did you do to me?"
"I honestly don't know. No mystical healing hocus pocus or anything like that. I just, well, changed it."
She laughed quickly, hysterically. "You just changed it. Just changed a fatal condition?"
I blew out a hard sigh. "I'll try to explain what little I know. Over dinner this weekend, maybe?"
A long pause. "Well, since I don't seem to be dying anymore, why not? Saturday, six o'clock?"
"Sure. Pick you up?"
"Why not. I live at --"
"Saw it on that envelope. It's etched into my brain."
"So," she said with only slightly slurred words as she emptied the dregs of the bottle of chardonnay into our glasses, "you change things just by altering digital images. Dither, dither, save. That's it?"
I shrugged. "Basically. Too weird, huh?"
"Basically," she grinned. "Did you really do that to your manager?"
"Yup. Guilty as charged. But I did undo it -- mostly. Some of it sort of stuck. I think maybe I keyed into something that was already real, and kind of amplified it, or made her more honest about it or something."
"And you actually arranged our first meeting the same way?
I squirmed. "Look, I'm really sorry about that. It wasn't very ethical, but --"
"But it ended up saving my life. Somehow, 'No harm, no foul,' sounds kind of lame." She wiggled herself from beside me on the couch into my lap. Her brilliant blue eyes were wide and direct. "Thank you for being unethical," she whispered as she lowered her lips toward mine.
Our lovemaking was slow and sinuous, warm and moist, gasped and sighed. It was, bar none, the most astounding round of sex I'd ever had. And, our second effort turned rapid and wet and loud and explosive and was even better. I was not only sated, but in love.
We became inseparable. I was smitten. The better I got to know her, the more I adored her. Smart, pretty, affectionate, doting, and playful. Very playful, and very affectionate, if you catch my drift. I lived life through a rosy post-coital haze.
The only apple in Eden was what I was able to do with Paint Shop Pro. She kept urging me to play with people or interpersonal relationships. Make her friend Dottie's boyfriend a little slimmer ("How could that do harm, honey? I'd be great for his health and self-confidence. Not to mention making him more attractive to Dottie."). Straighten out some slimeball co-worker who kept hitting on her ("Please, hon! It's poetic justice to give him a two inch penis! Just for a few days!").
Ever try to justify your ethical code to another intelligent human being? Try to present it as a coherent and seamless system, even though it's most likely a hodge-podge of notions tossed together from your life's bits and pieces? It ain't easy. Ultimately, decisions about right and wrong come down to gut feelings. There is seldom an absolutely black-or-white situation, no matter what your preacher says. Telling my love "no" wasn't always easy.
Once, I capitulated. Bridgette sat, enthralled, beside me as I did my magic, in very small stages, gradually erasing the horrid scars from a mutual friend's disfigured face. At each session, Bridgette's breath became short, her lips slightly parted. Each time, immediately afterwards, we fucked like bunnies.
"God," she groaned after the final session, trying to pull my entire body inside her womb, "I can't believe how much that turns me on, baby! Oh, yeah, just like that! Faster! Oh, please, faster!" Then, as if her approaching orgasm inspired her, she bucked wildly and growled, "Do me, baby! Change me! Do something to me! Make me --" Her words dissolved into scream, and I saw stars and I joined her.
It became a little boudoir game. "Honey, you could make my breasts larger, couldn't you? Just for a weekend, I could be your centerfold, your own Hooters girl." Or, "Wouldn't you enjoy oral sex even more if you gave me great big fat lips." And, "Yeah, love. Right there! Just like that! What if you . . . ah! . . . bleached my hair and . . . oh! . . . made it long enough to hang down to a tight bubble butt . . . and when you did me from behind . . . like this . . . you could pull it . . . real . . . hard . . . and . . ."
Well. I'm not made of steel, though I can sometimes manage a localized impersonation. And, especially when I'm ga-ga in love, I can get stupid. So, on the sly, I began seeing just what I could do with my love. I'm really glad I started off slowly and carefully, because the effects were immediate and drastic. I'd created a pic of Bridgette curled on the sofa painting her nails, and it came to pass, in excruciating detail, less than fifteen minutes later. Well, perhaps to you that might not seem drastic, but, given my lady's adamant anti-manicure attitude, I was left speechless.