By: JS Dorn
A bright ray of morning sunshine, dancing through the patisserie window pane made William sneeze. Marie smiled as she passed, basket of freshly baked bread in hand. “Bless you”. William put his handkerchief away, and smiled back at her. “Thank you” he said. William reached for his tea and took a sip. He had ordered darjeeling today. “They say that only certain kinds of people sneeze at sunlight. You must be one of those special people” She said, wiping down the old oak counter in front of William. “You always tell me that” William mused, casting his eyes down instinctively. The sunlight radiated from behind Marie, making it appear as if each hair on her head was bright golden strand of fire. As she worked she hummed her favorite tune, dancing as she went.“I just finished preparing fresh blackberry jam. Would you like to try?” She asked. William smiled, catching her gaze “Only if you sing me that song that your humming.” Her warm hazel eyes lighted up and she bit her lip. “You know I don't like my singing voice, but I'm really proud of this batch of jam.” She said as she whisked away with girlish enthusiasm, the loose length of her apron ties fluttering behind her. As she went she sang and danced.
“Let me call you sweetheart, I'm in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.
Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes, so true.
Let me call you sweetheart, I'm in love with you.”
Marie's voice had a natural melody that belied a great vocal range. She went back to merely humming as she returned, jar and spoon in hand. Before William could reach for the spoon, Marie popped it and a healthy heaping of jam into his mouth. “What do you think?” She asked, leaning close to him. Despite the strong scent of fresh blackberries, William could still make out the smell of Marie's lavender soap. His hesitation made Marie pause. “Was it not good? Some of the blackberries might have still been just a tad red when I picked them.” “No, It is very good jam! I was just distracted. You smell really nice today.” William stammered. Marie blushed and looked away. “Thank you” she said, quietly before excusing herself to start the next batch of bread.
William kept trying to think of what to say when Marie came back. But he couldn't work up the courage to say anything other than “Thank you for the jam again, I really liked it.” Glancing at his watch he knew time was short. However, as William got up to leave Marie caught his sleeve.
“William?” She asked, her face blushed again. “Would you like to help me pick blackberries this weekend? It's just that there are still many more to collect and I can only get so many myself. It's been so difficult to tend the shop and do everything else since papa got sick and.....” William cut her off with a kiss. Marie's eyes flashed with surprise but then closed, her body leaning into his, prolonging the kiss. “I'd love to” William replied, pulling away softly. Marie smiled demurely and looked away, tucking her golden locks behind her ear. “I guess I'll see you then?” she asked. “Till then” William said.
He lingered at the door, taking it all in. The well worn hardwood floors, and the aged brass door knob, the large glass windows overlooking the cobblestone street, and the delicious smell of fresh bread all threatened to overwhelm him. He heard the bell-tower begin tolling and knew he could linger no more. It feels so real he thought.
William stepped out of the Escape Room building and onto the wet, hard asphalt street. On the wall beside the door were screens playing animations of the virtual reality girls you could date. Marie was portrayed as just one of several artificial companions. He took a deep pull from his vape pen. He was almost out of lavender again. The twilight of late afternoon filtered lazily through the skyline above, highlighting the steam rising up out of the manhole covers up and down the street. William took out his smartphone and checked his Escape Room app. He was out of credits for the week. He wouldn't be able to see Marie again until next week at the soonest. It was the third time they'd kissed, but he didn't have enough credits for a VIP session, which would unlock the blackberry picking date. He could save up his credits by going a few weeks without seeing her, but the thought of that left a cold pit in the bottom of his stomach. He took another long pull on his vape pen and started down the road. Even though it had clearly just rained, it seemed likely to do so again. Everything had a gray hue to it, from the street itself, cracked and worn, to the walkway railings, the paint already mostly chipped off, revealing cold dull pitted steel beneath. He passed from the Escape Room company's side-street onto a wider boulevard. There were other businesses here, storefronts for other AI experiences, single serving prepared meals in disposable containers, and smart phone screen repair to name a few. There were other shops that were no longer open but had no “for lease” signs out. More than likely they were housing servers to either run AI services or mine crypto currency. It was the same every week.
William found his old car just where he left it. Even in the worst neighborhoods the obvious faded black and white coloring and trim level made it clear that his car is, or at least was a cop car. William had gotten it cheap at auction years back. He liked that it had a steering wheel, even though it was fully autonomous (the latter having been required by law for all vehicles for some time) William got in and punched in his home as a destination. It began to rain.
William watched the raindrops wiggle their way across his window. Instead of distracting himself with his phone, he kept looking out on the the city streets. There were concrete curbs, metal guard rails, signposts with QR codes on them and LED street lights. All around him were other metal shells with people inside them. The autonomous driving software precluded the possibility of an accident or fender bender and accordingly, the gaps between vehicles were minimal. It reminded William of an escape room demo he had once gotten for free in which he took a train ride on a locomotive through a scenic countryside. He only stopped reminiscing when he reached home. His pod was in an old apartment building which only had awkwardly angled side streets for parking that the autopilot couldn't handle. Every night he had to manually drive it into his parking space. The vehicle was inhibited so that self driving mode couldn't be used at speeds over five miles an hour.
Once he had left the car and entered his pod, the night became much like any other. William consumed food, mindless stimulation and went to bed. Another long week of waiting had begun before he could gaze into Marie's soft loving digital eyes once again.
Pod life was amazingly consistent. Commutes had gradually become a thing of the past for most people, who chose to work from their pods whenever possible. William still had a job requiring a car though. He was grateful that it gave him a reason to stretch his muscles. Medication for muscle atrophy was common but expensive when used every day. His job was a building janitor for server buildings. Keeping the fans from collecting too much dust, making sure old windows didn't leave too much moisture, making sure rats hadn't infiltrated and started chewing on wiring we all part of his responsibilities. William figured it was still cheaper to hire someone like himself to make the rounds with a broom than have cameras and roombas everywhere. He almost never had to speak with anyone else, and was able to listen to his favorite streams while he worked. Day by day the work week went by.
It was Earl Grey tea this morning. Marie danced over and wiped the oak counter-top in front of William. “Marie, I am sorry I could not join you last weekend for blackberry picking.” She looked up, and smiled shyly. She had this nervous tick where she would twirl a loose lock of her hair. She was doing it now. “I understand William, it's really not fair of me to try to pretend that working in the fields could be a suitable date. Maybe another time.” William reached out and took Marie's hand in his. “You might be right about that, but I would still like to make it up to you.” Marie didn't pull her hand away. It was soft, though subtle callouses showed she was no stranger to hard work. “What did you have in mind?” she asked. William looked up and into her hazel eyes. He glanced back, though the big patisserie windows at the cobblestone street. “Wouldn't you like to get out of here for a bit? See someplace else?”
Marie gently took her hand back and finished wiping the counter top. “While papa is sick I can't really leave the shop you know. That life may be for others but I can't be selfish.” William sighed. This was the answer she always gave. “We could go someplace nearby. Not too crowded. Just the two of us. Anywhere you want. Your father is not so ill you must tend to him every waking moment, if that were so you'd have no time to tend the shop or pick blackberries. Am I right?”
Marie seemed taken aback by William's sudden boldness. “Perhaps...no, it's silly.” she said, twirling a stray lock of hair again. “Where? Tell me!” William insisted.
Suddenly the bell-tower began to chime. William got up suddenly. He knew he had to leave and started for the door. “William, I would love to go to the ocean sometime.” Marie said suddenly. William looked at her, eyes wide. “Absolutely!” He stammered. “Can you promise me William?” she asked. “I promise!” William said, uncertainly in his voice. Without a moment to lose he waved goodbye and stepped through the door into the cobblestone street.
As he always did, William scanned his access pass card at the checkout station near the exit of the Escape Room center. A yellow warning light came on, indicating he needed to speak to the attendant. William groaned and pushed the small red “Request help” button nearby on the wall. After a few moments a buzzing sound could be heard and a section of the wall cracked open, swinging in like a door. In the doorway appeared a pudgy white man with a scraggly goatee and very pale complexion. He was wearing a greasy polo shirt with the Escape Room center's logo on it. William at first thought he was just incredibly short, but quickly realized the attendant was sitting on a wheeled desk chair and was scooting around on it rather than get up and walk. He attendant beckoned for William to follow him, waving his sausage link fingers in a vague human-like gesture.
William steeped through the door and into a dimly lit room with many screens and keyboard terminals. There was a desk of sorts with a very uncomfortable looking chair he was asked to sit in. This office was nothing like the sales suite he had signed his original contract for the Escape Room center in. The pudgy blog-man spoke. “Sir? Sorry about this but it looks like your passport has expired and before you can continue to enjoy your subscription we will need you renew it.” William sort of heard what that man had said, but his eyes were too busy gazing at a poster of Marie on the wall. She was in a risque pose, her rear facing the viewer suggestively. William felt a mixture of arousal and disgust. “Sir?” the attendant asked again, prompting William to pull his attention away from the poster. “I'm sorry, what's wrong with my passport?” he asked. The man sighed at William, the chair beneath him creaking in pain as he shifted his weight. William noticed that the floor had very clear marks where the chair wheels had gone over the same places and over again. “Your vaccine passport needs to be renewed. Whether or not that means you need more shots depends on your situation. As always Escape Room Entertainment Incorporated and it's officers, directors, employees, agents and representatives are not medical providers and do not provide medical advice.”
William took out his passport. He was fairly sure this year was an automatic renewal and told the attendant as much. “Well all right, please hand it me and we will scan it. We have to verify it on the blockchain and that process can take a few minutes. Do you mind waiting?” William indicated that he did not mind waiting. He tried to relax in the uncomfortable chair. The attendant wheeled back towards a large terminal with a metal cabinet next to it. William watched as the attendant entered a sequence of commands into the terminal which prompted a small drive to open and extend. He spoke as he pulled the drive out.
“Are you interested in taking it to the next level with Marie?” he asked. William stammered out an ambiguous response about the blackberry picking date, having been caught off guard. “Oh I wasn't talking about that, though some guys like the outside experience. What I meant is that you are probably the only client I've seen who has gone this long without....you know.” The attendant made an obscene gesture. William was still unsure of what the attendant meant. “You know...Buttering her bread? squirting your batter all over her pastry? Giving her the good old fashioned D? Fucking her brains out over that nice old oak counter-top? Most guys do it the first session and move on to other girls.” He now hefted the drive, which was short and squarish, made of metal and sported a set of ports and connectors on one hand and a carrying handle on the other away from the terminal. William's plain look of discomfort and silence didn't give the attendant pause. “I can tell you are one of those romantic types. You see her every week but never take her out anywhere. How do you think that makes her feel?” He held up the drive and spoke to it. “What do you think Marie? You tired of this loser not committing?” He laughed mockingly. “Yeah you didn't know? She is literally on this drive here. Your unique iteration of Marie is actually Marie...” the attendant flipped the drive around to read a number on the front “7403”.
William felt his muscles tense, and he could feel the taste of iron in his mouth. He realized he'd been gritting his teeth very tightly. “Look man, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to piss you off. Here look. I'll give you a discount on any of our date packages.” The attendant turned to the metal cabinet. It had what looked like a biometric scanner. The attendant began rattling off some of the date packages as he mindlessly pressed his thumb to the biometric scanner three times in succession. Each time it returned an error message. On the third failed try it offered him the option instead of inputting a code. The attendant then reached down to an old worn keypad and quickly pressed four buttons in quick succession. The metal door unlocked and he pulled the door wide. William took several deep breaths. “What about a beach date, do you have one of those?” He asked.
Even half off, it was very expensive. William would have to cut back on some things for the rest of the month. But he wanted to keep his promise to Marie. “You will have to use it in the next week though because the date packages are changing their promo codes and I won't be able to honor the discount.” After the transaction the attendant went to check on William's vaccine passport. “Hmm, I am still getting an error message. You are gonna have to go to the FDA Service Center to get this straightened out.” William cursed, taking the passport back from the attendant.
It was raining again as William stepped out onto the street. He used his phone to book the earliest appointment he could get at the closest FDA service center the next morning.
As William made the familiar trek back to his car he couldn't help feeling angrier and angrier. He gazed up at the mostly empty storefronts above him. There were no lights on in the windows but William could use his imagination to see all those hallways and rooms, filled with servers, computing out anything and everything needed for modern society to function. Is Marie being taken advantage of right now in those servers? He wondered. He thought of that poster again. She is not like that. He told himself. Darker thoughts came to William, unbidden. Instead of punching in the coordinates for home he punched in the coordinates for the pharmacy. Tonight I just need to shut down my mind he thought, picking up some over the counter klonopin and some cool ranch Doritos. Figuring he might as well go all out he also swung by the liquor store and bought the cheapest whiskey he could find. A big jug's worth.
When he finally punched in the coordinates for home though, his car gave him an error message. The screen told him that there were obstructions around the vehicle and that the autopilot couldn't safely engage. Even when William used manual steering mode to move the car to different spots in the parking lot it still wouldn't engage. Frustrated William started restarting things, changing settings and at long last getting out of the car and kicking the sensor housing. That last bit finally seemed to do the trick and his car took him home.
For William, The Holy Trinity of forgetting all his problems was anxiety medication, strong but poorly distilled hard liquor and nostalgic video games. A few hundred milligrams of klonopin, a few shots of shitty whiskey and a fresh replay of his favorite Zeldor game, did the trick.
A few hours in and William was having as pretty good time. He was close to rescuing the princess. He felt like his buzz was wearing off though so he went and took another shot of whiskey. He felt the need to get the taste of terrible whiskey from his mouth and remembered his vape pen. He took it out from his pocket and took a long pull, but the cartridge was empty.
Unsteady on his feet and game paused, he went searching through the storage cabinets under his pod's futon for more vape juice. He couldn't find any. In his frustration he began tossing everything out, searching intensely, sure that he had at least capsule left somewhere.
Finally, he found a bag with one capsule left. The sweet taste of lavender coupled with the intense rush of nicotine hit his system hard. He went back to his video game but found that in his state, his reflexes were not what he needed them to be. He could not rescue the princess.
As the scent of lavender wafted from his vape pen, he remembered Marie. He remembered a particular visit to the patisserie. Marie had just put in a fresh batch of dough to bake. There was no other smell in the shop besides her. That was the first time he had worked up the courage to kiss her. William smiled. Into that memory now though trod the mocking words of the attendant. William thought of Marie's body, he thought of what she might look like under that apron and....of other men having their way with her. Why should William be surprised though. She was an artificial intelligence housed within a virtual reality. William's eyes focused back to reality and he appraised his surroundings, his mind apprehending a shade of sobriety amid this bacchanal. In front of William the Legend of Zeldor flashed it's pause screen. The screen held up a still frame of his character, the hero, preparing to save the princess. William crawled towards the console and switched it off. He could muster no energy to rescue princess Zeldor. He took another deep pull of his vape pen and drifted off to a restless slumber.