The Pachyderm

November 14, 2021

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago and have revised slightly for publication here. If you're reading this by email, know that it runs long and will probably get clipped by your mail client, so you can just click the title link right above here to read the whole thing.


Jaden Driscoll was already awake, staring at the ceiling, trying to remember his father’s face, as the early morning rain pattered against his bedroom window. Black hair, gently sloping jaw, sunken eyes, a small burn scar near the left ear, a mole on the right cheek near the nose.

He thought of every detail as he remembered his father, Mark, twenty years ago throwing a football across their street, ten years ago handing him a Miller Lite in the back yard, and three weeks ago confiding which nurses he was flirting with.

Jaden couldn’t tell if the women had found his father’s come-ons playful or tiresome, but he suspected the latter. Now, he worried he was already forgetting the way his father pursed his lips when mulling something. Worse, he worried he’d already forgotten important details. Had his father crossed his arms or put his hands on his hips when he was disappointed? How much of the Texas accent from his youth had he actually retained?

The Pachyderm was supposed to come this morning. Jaden wasn’t sure he wanted one for his father -- he hadn’t gotten one for his mother.

After his mother’s death, his girlfriend at the time had seemed especially upset that he wasn’t getting one. Samantha wasn’t particularly close to his mother, but she asked him every day for at least a week if he was sure he didn’t want a complete record of his mother’s online activities. Eventually, he told her to back off and let him remember his mom the way he fucking wanted.

Now, though, he wished he’d gotten it. He had some photos of Karen Driscoll stored in a cloud folder, and even a few precious videos that somehow survived transfers across multiple hard drives until Jaden found them while browsing through her last computer.

Most were from family vacations they’d taken, to Disneyland, Hawaii, and Las Vegas. In one, she waited in line for the Matterhorn ride, teasing Jaden -- who couldn’t have been older than twelve -- about wanting to go down the left track instead of the right. In another, she sat underneath a beach umbrella, in her one-piece, silent, as children ran by in the background.

Jaden’s father shot these clips, but he didn’t speak in any of them, and he never turned the camera on himself.

The whirr of a drone outside prompted Jaden to slide out of bed and pull on jeans. He shuffled to his door and found a small cardboard box on the mat.

He brought the delivery inside and opened the package. The Pachyderm was a plastic-shelled cube, about two inches square, with no discernible seams. It was dark grey, and the outer layer was textured just enough that Jaden could feel the plastic’s swirling grooves and ridges with his fingertips.

He turned on his laptop, scanned his eye, and connected to the internet. After a moment the computer detected the Pachyderm and opened a new window.

Are you sure you want to continue? After this point, you will no longer be able to return this Pachyderm. Be aware that due to licensing agreements, you will only be able to access the information on this Pachyderm for 12 hours after you begin.

Jaden clicked Yes. Something inside the cube clicked, and his computer opened another window.

Jaden Terrence Driscoll (6), you now have access to Mark William Driscoll’s (74) recorded online history, organized for a simple browsing experience. Search results will reflect web sites where Mark left content. For example, if you search “Twitter”, you can view all of Mark’s tweets, private messages, likes, and other data. We’ve done our best to make the Pachyderm experience intuitive, so try a search term and start exploring.

Jaden paused. He heard the rain still tapping. He typed “Facebook” into the Pachyderm’s search bar.

He was friends with his father on Facebook, but Jaden hadn’t seen many posts from his father in the past couple years, since the diagnosis. Occasionally, Mark posted memes expressing saccharine optimism. A couple times, Jaden recalled, Mark had shared a childhood memory without tagging anyone.

So Jaden was unprepared for the Pachyderm to present him with a dense list of files. There were thousands of private messages to dozens of people Jaden didn’t know. Mark belonged to more than fifty Facebook groups and had carried on extensive conversations in several of them.

Jaden began reading the most recent private messages. The first few were simple explanations and good-byes to men in Texas -- Jaden assumed they were old friends -- but one was to a red-headed woman in Santa Cruz named Kelly Stewart who looked like she was Jaden’s age, and it wasn’t a good-bye.

“This is it,” Mark wrote in the only recorded message to Kelly. “My heart’s going to give out soon, and I won’t be able to bother you any more. I know I’m an asshole for what I did in Reno, and I’m an even bigger asshole for waiting until now to get back in touch. I’m sorry. It’s cowardly, but now I’m trying.”

Jaden picked up the Pachyderm. It was warm in his palm. He resisted the urge to smash it on the floor.

🐘 🐘

He paid the $100 for Kelly Stewart’s public geodata, but though he got what appeared to be a home address in Santa Cruz, the report informed him it might be outdated. Her locations had stopped recording three years before.

In those days, she’d spent a good deal of time at that address, at Sunrise Pet Store on Pacific Avenue, and, just about every Monday and Tuesday, in San Jose and San Francisco. Jaden didn’t see any instances when she had been tracked visiting Reno. Her Facebook profile was locked down.

Sunrise Pet Store’s web site didn’t list employees’ names, nor did it have any photos of them. From the outside, on Google Street View, it looked just big enough to require perhaps two people working there.

Jaden opened a note on his phone and pasted Kelly’s data there. He decided he’d revisit that information later.

He combed through Mark’s Facebook data, but most of it was benign, even dull. In the end, the groups he joined weren’t all that surprising. Halle Berry Fans. iPad Advice. I Remember the 90s. Jaden scrolled through hundreds more Facebook posts, but saved none of them.

He was on the verge of moving on when he noticed a photo that had been cross-posted from Instagram. When had his father had an Instagram account?

Jaden searched the Pachyderm for “Instagram” and found an account with hundreds of photos stretching back more than a decade, with only a scattered few posts in the past year.

The final image was from a hospital bed, looking down to where his father’s brown feet were crossed ankle over ankle, and in the background there were several sterile green curtains blocking the line of sight to other patients’ beds.

The photo’s caption read, “Who wants to go back to work when you’ve got a view like this?”

Scrolling through the other photos, Jaden saw a few from the Central Coast. He searched the Pachyderm for “Instagram” and “Kelly”.

The search returned one photo, and Jaden gazed at it, momentarily confused. It was a wide image of the ocean, taken from an elevated point, and he could see thick layers of reddish-brown kelp near the shore.

The caption said only, “Kelly.”

Red kelp. Red hair.

With her name in only that one caption, Jaden decided he’d have to look through the whole archive. He began scrolling, and within a few minutes, there she was.

The picture was three years old and had no caption. It didn’t show her face, but the ponytailed red hair, shown from the back, clearly matched her Facebook photo. She was among a crowd of people walking through a farmers market, wearing a blue denim jacket, a small blue leather bag hanging from her shoulder on a thin white strap. Her right hand floated to the side, trailing, touching a pile of peaches.

She was the subject of the photo, Jaden decided, though with a little push one could imagine it truly was a crowd scene.

He kept scrolling, and she kept appearing, never mentioned in captions, and never showing her face. Jaden thought he recognized her freckled hand intruding on the edge of a picture at an A’s game. There was a lock of red hair sneaking into an overhead image of four fish tacos.

And there was her bag. The blue one with a white strap, on the floor of his father’s apartment, partially obscured by the new couch his father had bought at Ikea, in a picture captioned, “Looks great in the living room!”

Jaden closed his laptop, placed it on his desk, and pulled out his phone. He flipped through Twitter, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, until the signals blended together and he slammed the phone on his mattress. He picked up his pillow, tossed it in the air and threw a haymaker, punching it clear across the room.

He could stop, right now. Toss the Pachyderm in the trash, and try to get on with life knowing that Kelly Stewart existed and that Mark Driscoll was a person just like everyone else.

He opened his laptop and continued looking through his father’s Instagram photos.

🐘 🐘 🐘

Jaden finally decided to tackle his father’s email. Thirty-five years’ worth of automated notifications, job applications, YouTube links, and, perhaps, a few nuggets of insight awaited.

It occurred to Jaden that he should search for his own name. Perhaps his father sent a proud note to someone about his son’s burgeoning soccer skills. Maybe there were pictures he’d never seen.

But what about the opposite? What if Jaden came across a message describing how much Mark hated his son, his wife, his family?

Jaden tried to remember. He couldn’t quite conjure the exact tone and attitude his father had carried. His father wasn’t a particularly jolly guy, but he also wasn’t gloomy. Which memories were creations of his imagination, fulfilling his desires for what his father should have been, or confirming the fears he’d long tried to drown?

He looked at the clock and saw he’d been searching for three hours.

Jaden found his father’s Gmail cache and typed “Kelly Stewart”. There were hundreds of emails, the first one sent from his father to Kelly.

On that morning fifteen years ago, Jaden’s mother had probably packed his lunch as he got ready for yet another day as a high school sophomore, and she’d probably kissed his father goodbye for the day as they each left for work.

The timestamp said 12:41 p.m. Did he send it from his phone, over lunch, on break? Did his mother know about Kelly Stewart? Did she ever talk to her friends about the other woman?

Jaden looked at the date of the oldest message again, to be sure, hoping it was incorrect, a glitch in Gmail’s or the Pachyderm’s record-keeping. He repeated the search, and it came back with the same unchanged, unblinking shapes suggesting an uncomfortable truth amid so many possibilities.

🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘



It was a pleasure to meet you this morning. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to shoot me a message.

-- Mark


Mr. Driscoll,

Thank you again for taking some time to talk with me about U.C. Santa Cruz. Like I said before, I still don’t know if I’m going to apply there, but after our conversation I think I’ll definitely take a visit.

Kelly Stewart


Mr. Driscoll,

Hi, this is Kelly Stewart. Justine Stewart’s daughter. I wanted to let you know I visited UCSC and loved it. I know a couple more people I can ask questions about the school and town, but I was hoping we can meet again to chat? Let me know a good time for you and I’ll work it out with my mom.

Thank you for any help you can offer!

Kelly Stewart



Of course we can talk again. Evenings are tough because my wife often has to work late, so I’m responsible for dinner, etc, but if you’re able to come by the office around 4:30 on weekdays, I usually have a few minutes then.

-- Mark


Mr. Driscoll,

Okay! I’ll talk to my mom about visiting next week. Thanks again!

Kelly Stewart



Just wanted to make sure we’re meeting at the Starbucks on Stevens Creek, right off 280?



Yup that’s the one. 2pm.

-- Mark

The next email came from Kelly a few months later, and had a photo attached of the two of them standing in front of a sea lion statue, his arm across her shoulders.

I love this picture. I’m not sure how often I’ll pass that spot on the way to class, but I’ll probably smile when I do, thinking about that day.



The campus is beautiful, but still prefer the beach ;)

-- Mark


We have to go back soon. I keep thinking about the beach at night and how even though everything was so cold and smelled salty it felt so right.

BTW, I know you don’t want to text, but it would be so much easier and faster.



Are you there? Did I say something wrong? Call me.



Sorry at work… everything’s ok... i’ll call later tonight.



And so they continued, trading messages over the following months until an August day more than a decade ago when, after several weeks of no emails, Kelly sent one final missive.


Mark, I trust you completely. So I’ve been thinking about what you said last night and wanted to write it down so it comes out right. It makes all the sense in the world and makes no sense at all. I mean, you can’t have what we have and just stop. At the same time I get that I’m about meet a whole bunch of new people, make new friends, blah blah blah… But that won’t change how I feel about you. And because you’ve decided you don’t want to keep going, that hurts. I want to keep going. We won’t be far apart, we both have cars, and even if you can’t come here I’ll be home a lot of the time. We can make this work. I don’t want to give up.


🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘

At a certain point, Jaden thought, he would stop. There was a finite amount of information on the Pachyderm. And even if he read everything on it and learned all he could from it, his father was still dead.

But there was that pulsing sensation on the back of his neck. Jaden couldn’t find the throbbing with his fingers, but he could feel cold blue, white, and red energy coursing through his spine and down his arms into his fingertips.

There’s probably more. Just need the right search terms. Everything’s here. Just got to find it.

“MySpace”. Nothing.

“Tumblr”. Nothing.

“LiveJournal”. 279 entries.

His father had written LiveJournal entries sporadically starting when he was in high school. Most of those were only a single paragraph. Typically, he’d produce a dry recollection of what had happened that day. Several times, he wrote that he didn’t blog enough and openly wondered if he’d continue. Soon after graduating, the posts stopped.

There was a long gap, and then the Pachyderm returned a mention of “LiveJournal” in a Google Doc from about twenty years later. Jaden counted, determining it would have been about two years after his father had first met Kelly. He clicked it open and found a sprawling document that ran more than 100 pages. Mark Driscoll had resumed journaling in a private document and had continued writing in it over the next eight years. The opening sentences recounted how Mark had kept a LiveJournal many years before, and that he missed it.

As he continued reading, Jaden’s fingers tightened into fists.

🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘


I’m gonna be remembered as the good guy who sticks with Karen through all her treatments. Makes sure to call his son every week. Shows up to work, don’t complain, treats everyone with respect, goes home to my family.

Told Karen I had to be in LA for a meeting with Dale and his bosses this weekend. I was in LA but I lied. There was no meeting. If she ever asks Dale about the trip, I’m fucked.

God, feels so good to write that. Same time I want to puke.

Entire ride back, kept thinking what would happen if Karen saw Dale and asked if LA meeting went well. He’d say he has no idea what she meant, and she’d come home pissed wanting to know what’s going on.

So I sit her down on the couch pull up a chair directly in front of her sit myself down and say I’ve been seeing someone named Kelly. In Santa Monica this weekend we walked down Third Street Promenade, spent Saturday in Newport Beach, and had breakfast in our hotel room before hustling home.

Why would you lie and do such a thing she’d ask me. And then I’d have to tell her it’s been months.

And she wouldn’t say anything because I’m the good guy.


When Kelly wakes up I can tell she wants to ask me. Problem is that she already knows my answer and waiting another eight to twelve months for Karen’s situation to carry through is what’s going to happen.


Karen’s gotta stay in bed. I thought for a second this might be an opportunity to talk with her the future and what happens after. We’ve set a plan for her. But after that there’s no plan for me because nobody’s concerned about it.

After all Karen’s the one with an end in sight. And no one’s going to care about me while Karen’s still here.


Karen was relieved. Don’t know if I’m happy or if I should be happy about that or if people are gonna think I’m an asshole for being kinda happy she was ok at the end.

When the doctors told us it was time she just sort of smiled and looked at me and closed her eyes. I called Jaden and told him his mom was moving to hospice and to be ready.

Problem is we weren’t ready for it to be hours and not days. When it happened and she wasn’t there anymore I saw that relief and I was sorry Jaden couldn’t be there too. Karen was there and then I was alone and I was kinda happy that I don’t have to hide Kelly anymore.

And then I realized we would have to hide still because of Jaden and everyone who ever knew Karen. Of course we have to hide. And I’m thinking all these things the day my wife died.


Kelly wants me to go to her family’s house for Thanksgiving and I really don’t wanna do it.

Said she doesn’t want to pretend anymore and I couldn’t explain how embarrassing the whole thing would be for me and her parents.

She thinks I’m embarrassed to be with her which isn’t true. It’s embarrassing because I lied for a long time and it’s embarrassing because I can’t stop lying or else tons of people will be disappointed with me.

Especially Jaden. Don’t know how he’d react to find out I’m in love with a woman his age. Maybe he’d get used to it. But he’d just have to do the math and then he’d know I was in love with another woman before his mother died.

I can tell him I loved Karen totally all the way to the end and it wouldn’t matter. It’s the truth but it wouldn’t matter.


For Christmas Kelly got us a cruise on the bay. We’re going in a few weeks and I’ve taken that whole week off.

Just a couple weeks ago I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. She was so distant.

Is she bored? I used to be scared she’d get tired of hiding what we are but now I’m sure it’s a just-how-we-do-it kind of thing. We don’t ever talk about it anymore even though I think we both know it’ll come up again.

She’ll probably get bored of the old guy. She’s said again and again it’s not a big deal and it won’t be as bad as I think but she’s just not old enough to understand my position with Jaden and she really doesn’t understand because she doesn’t have children.

Jaden would be mad, think I’d insulted his mom, and I know how he gets and know he might do something. Her parents would be mad and try to get her to break up with me.

I can be happy this way. But if she can’t be happy then we’re already broken up and we just don’t know it yet.


I fucked up real bad. I took Kelly to Reno for the weekend and at dinner on the first night I tried to order us a bottle of wine but she wouldn’t drink any. I tried to make a joke about going to a city full of casinos in order to start straight living and she flipped out.

Right there in the restaurant she said she was pregnant going on two months. And one more thing, that we couldn’t keep it a secret anymore or else she was breaking up with me.

I got mad. Stood up and said she was being unfair. Said she doesn’t get what I have to go through and that we keep it quiet because other people wouldn’t accept us and not because I’m ashamed of her. And I said if she doesn’t understand I can’t do that then our relationship may as well be over.

She didn’t cry or say anything at all. We’ve fought before but it was always short and hardly ever about big things. We’d yell a bit and go to another room and then a few minutes later we’d be ok. This time she didn’t yell and just looked out the window at sunset and the mountains.

So I left. Grabbed a car, rode it all the way back to California. Didn’t call her, and she didn’t call or text. I don’t know if she’s still in Reno or went home or what.

I should call and tell her I love her and ask her to forgive me. Except I keep thinking of Jaden and it makes me want to break something because I just want to make everything right and I can’t.

I don’t know. I fucked up.


Jaden knows I’m sick. He asked if I would tell people at work but I don’t know. Part of me really wants to not show up one day and have everyone find out on Facebook that I’m in the hospital and only have a few more days or something.

After talking with Jaden I didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t come and I was just going to be alone at home for the next few hours so I called Kelly. She didn’t pick up and I didn’t leave a message.

We haven’t talked since we were in Reno and no one’s told me about a baby so I don’t know.

Guess I imagined we’d talk and we’d explain everything to each other. Probably silly to hope she’ll come back so we can just chat. In the end I want her to remember me as a good guy.

🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘

Jaden reserved a car and when it arrived directed it to head over the mountains toward Santa Cruz.

As it hurtled along Highway 17, he connected his laptop and the Pachyderm to the internet through his phone and again scrolled through his father’s Instagram posts, drinking in every hinted reference to Kelly Stewart, filling in the blanks of every story they told.

When the car pulled in front of Sunrise Pet Store, Jaden stepped out and stretched. It was mid-afternoon and he hadn’t eaten yet. The car rolled away, and Jaden looked up and down the block to assess his food options. There was a diner two doors down. He wondered if they had waffles.

He pushed open the front door, setting off an electronic ding, and he nearly tripped over the doorstep because there was Kelly Stewart, sitting at the counter, taking a final bite of toast, empty mug with two tea bags, gazing at her empty white plate. Her red hair was cropped close, her full figure draped by a loose cream-colored tunic over dark blue cargo pants. From fifteen feet away Jaden could see the galaxy of freckles on her left shoulder as it jutted through her shirt’s wide collar.

The man behind the counter said, “Welcome. Feel free to sit anywhere.”

Jaden took a breath and stepped behind Kelly.

“Excuse me,” he said.

She swiveled in her chair.

“Yeah?” she said.

Jaden extended his hand.

“My name’s Jaden. I’m wondering if you have some time to chat.”

Kelly ignored his hand, pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her pocket, turned, and placed it under her mug. She turned back to face him.

“Depends. What are we talking about?”

Jaden pulled his hand back.

“Your name is Kelly? You knew my father, Mark Driscoll.”

Jaden thought he saw her eye twitch.

She stood up. “I’ve got to get back to work. Anything else I can do for you?”

“I know you two spent time together, and I’d like to speak with you about it. Don’t try to get rid of me.”

Kelly’s throat reddened. She glanced at the man behind the counter.

“I’m not sure what you want from me. I’m going back to work, so you’d better move on.”

She stood up and turned to the counter man.

“Scott, you catch all that?”

The man nodded.

Jaden watched Kelly walk out the door and turn toward the pet shop. When she passed out of his view, he took a seat at the counter.

“Scott, do you have waffles with bananas?” he asked.

🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘

Jaden sat on the beach, the Pachyderm in his pocket. He had only two hours left.

He listened to the rhythmic rolling of the waves and tried to remember his father as he had a week ago.

There was the Mark Driscoll who attended all of Jaden’s soccer games, even the ones they knew would be such blowouts that Jaden would likely get pulled at halftime. There was the father who stood nose-to-nose with Jaden that February day and told him that getting a D+ in Algebra 2 was horseshit and that Jaden must have been trying to fuck up since he’d gotten a B+ in Algebra 1.

And there was his father, holding his mother’s hand in the hospital after another round of chemo, whispering to her. Only, of course, that was at the same time he was meeting Kelly Stewart in secret. And as soon as his mother died, the two of them were on vacation, in restaurants, in each other’s homes.

Jaden pulled out the Pachyderm, walked to the edge of the water, and threw it as far as he could over the waves. His momentum carried him a few steps into the ocean foam, and then he tripped over his own feet, falling headlong into the soggy sand. He missed seeing the satisfying plop of the Pachyderm breaking the water’s surface and instantly wished he could have a do-over. But instead, he had to scramble to his feet and jog away from the water to avoid the fingers of an incoming wave.

When Jaden got back to his bag he tried to start his laptop, but the batteries had run out of power completely.

🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘 🐘

That evening, Jaden knocked on the door of a second-story walkup in a well-kept apartment cluster on Santa Cruz’s east side. The winter sun had already set, and the temperature was dropping into the fifties. Jaden wished he’d brought a jacket.

He heard movement inside the apartment. Then Kelly spoke to him from the other side of the door.

“I’m going to call the cops unless you leave.”

“You knew my father. I want to talk to you about him.”

“You have ten seconds to get away from my door.”

“Look, I don’t remember him as an asshole. Sure, he wasn’t always the best guy, but he definitely wasn’t the worst guy.”

She didn’t answer.

“I know you two spent a good amount of time together. Maybe you don’t want to talk, and in that case there’s nothing I can really do, but I’m hoping there’s a chance you’ve been waiting to talk to someone about him, and it’s something you really want. Maybe you have feelings you haven’t been able to explain, and if we have a conversation, we can feel better about everything. I’m just trying to understand.”

He didn’t hear anything for a few moments.

“Why do you feel entitled to answers?” Kelly asked through the door.

“I don’t,” he said. “I can go home today not knowing anything else, and I’ll live. But we’re talking about my dad. I loved him, and from what I gather, you loved him, too. And that’s worth talking about.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like playing along. Mark was fine. I’m fine. I’m sorry for your loss. But you’re going to have to leave. My husband is due home any minute, now.”

Jaden turned and looked back at the apartment complex parking lot. He didn’t see any cars pulling in. He turned back to the door.

“Did you have the baby?” he asked.

“I’ve been polite. You need to leave, or I’ll have the police make you leave,” she said.

“Then I’ll come back,” he said.

“No, you won’t. Now go away.”

Jaden tried to remember if he’d ever seen videos of someone kicking in a door. A strong front kick could do it. He backed up from the door, picturing himself barreling through the opening. And then what? He turned and walked away.

When he got to the sidewalk, he pulled out his phone and found a car to take him home.

As the car slipped down the mountain on Highway 17, the rain picked up again. Jaden pulled out his phone and deleted his notes about Kelly Stewart. He deleted his browsing history. And he deleted Kelly’s public geodata.

He couldn’t remember her address anymore, which was good. But he couldn’t forget that picture of red kelp, which was not.

(Photo: "Red Kelp" by Dawn Ellner. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)