Be kind to others.
You never know how difficult their journey is.
She’s tried to write a happy ending to her story, but it always ends up the same.
All these years, every story she writes—why can’t one end happily?
She pumps her legs on the treadmill. Faster. Breathe. Stupid heart, keep pumping. Live. You know how to beat.
It beat for him.
The machine squeals and shudders. She topples off, her tennis shoes jarring on the carpet.
Ugh. Broken again.
The treadmill is a rattly old thing, but she has to care for it because they don’t manufacture exercise machines anymore.
No one exercises.
No one’s outside the virtual game except the rebels, the rejects, the misfits.
They’re the ones she’s supposed to catch, the ones she’s caught for years.
The ones who caught her for a while, recently.
Breathing hard, she hunkers over and examines the stalled treadmill, then straightens and pads over to the shelf by the couch where she keeps all her instruction manuals. She shuffles through the ones for the blender, the juicer, the radio, her computer… she’s read them all. She knows how everything works.
She always reads the instructions.
Treadmill… Let’s see… Troubleshooting… Ah, yes.
Something’s stuck under the belt.
She drops to her knees, sweat dripping onto the hard-knotted industrial carpet, and… there it is. Fuzz accumulated from God knows what.
Focus on the simple things.
‘Remove by pulling in the direction of the belt going in forward motion,’ the manual writes…
Don’t think of the motion of his hands. How he moved with lethal grace and killed a boar bare-handed.
Things like that only happen in books. In forbidden books like the ones secreted behind her instruction manuals. Those always end happily, the ones where the women are extravagantly wanton and half tearing off their flowing gowns, their hair improbably voluminous and floaty. Real hair doesn’t do that. Not even Cornucopia has created locks to defy gravity yet.
That reminds her.
She bought the new multi-coloured hair a few weeks ago. Before he kidnapped her… before he touched her real hair. He’d had his hands in it that one moment away from the others in that dark corridor, the pins from her bun pinging to the floor in the semidarkness, his mouth a breath away from her—
Back on the treadmill.
Run run run…
Run now like she never did from him.
She should’ve run.
She’s not supposed to have the books. They don’t want people reading escapist literature; they want them hooked up and playing the game.
She’s a cog in their system. She finds the loose screws and persuades them back into the fold – the grid where virtual reality and intravenous sustenance and regeneration drugs provide them all their necessities.
But sometimes people balk, so she always has the bots along to push back if the customers get aggressive. Cornucopia’s machines always protect her… except that one instant – breathless, crazy – when fate threw a hand her way and separated her from the bots.
She’d climbed up onto the airship dock in pursuit of fugitives who hadn’t wanted to take the survey, her heels in a business-like clack-clack. But then she’d looked up, her hair whipping in the wind eighty stories above the street, and she’d been on the airship as it left the dock, all of her supporting bots left behind on the anchorage, and only rebels on the ship, and her with them.
Stop it. You’ll never get back to him.
All her secret books have happy endings. Those women’s partners never left. Real men never used to leave.
Definitely no man in the stories ever left in exchange for images of digital heaven in his brain rather than the touch of a human woman: a woman climbing into his bed and breathing in the circle of his arms, smiling against his lips, his hands gripping flesh and blood that reacted in beat and passion.
The first one left her so many years ago now.
That’s why she started this hunting. Why she entered the system. To find other happy couples and show them that the men are weak. It’s always the men she targets.
Maybe I’m a bitch.
Maybe I’m bitter.
Maybe I’m hoping that one will resist the lure of the game. That at least one will give up endless possibilities for one woman.
Only one man she met was never tempted, but he’s out of her reach now.
She stares at herself in the mirror. Her eye-colour contacts are back in, shifting from lavender to cobalt to green to golden to tangerine to ruby to lavender… She took them out for him, in the wilderness after the airship landed and he used his knife to cut the spiked stilettos off her high heels, the muscles in his arms taut and powerful. A man used to fighting in the sun-scorched desert, who’d only come to London’s urban sprawl for his cousins.
She likes the changing eye colour. So much more interesting than her natural bland brown, no matter what he’d said about natural beauty…
She needs another change.
Thank God she has the new hair. If she can sync it with the contacts, they’ll change colours at the same time.
She settles the silky wig on her head, its threads attaching to the strands of her hair and coating them.
Where’s her instruction manual? Ah, yes, here it is. Hmm… Table of contents… Here: Syncing with other Cornucopia products. What series are the contacts? M170. Okay… Yes, here.
Aah, it’s so pretty. Both her hair and her eyes match. They shift in sync from lavender to cobalt to green…
Tears leave her eyelashes glistening and bring the exquisite salt of the earth to her tongue. Her fingertips graze her dewy cheeks. It’s so beautiful.
Could this not be a happy ending? She, one of the last humans outside the game, watching her hair colour change from gold to tangerine to ruby…
She wanders into the main room – the bedroom, living room, and kitchen all in one – and peers out the window: a view onto cracked concrete and leaning rubbish bins, abandoned cars with shattered windows. A whiff of old trash. Vacant streets.
Do any other kind exist now?
Her hair alters colours in her peripheral vision.
I’m not going to write a happy ending, she decides. I’m going to live one.
Dinner is a protein shake and vitamins and some special pills.
She always reads the manuals, doesn’t she? The instructions. The tips…
‘Don’t take A and B together,’ they write on the pill bottle.
But, A and B, she thinks, you look like you want to be together. Together like I can’t be with him because Cornucopia ‘rescued’ me from the rebels, didn’t they?
Yes, A and B, you’ll go so lovely together. I know because I always read the manuals, and you both taste… like… a happy ending.
Short story inspired by Paul Talacko’s dystopian future from his current work in progress. He’s a writer in my Wednesday critique group and we were discussing the potential backstory of one of his minor characters (who might or might not become a major one) and one version of her story kept haunting me until it finally poured out. Paul kindly gave me permission to publish it on my blog.
I’ve made him promise not to give her this ending in his book 😀
And as to whether happy endings really do exist, I tend to ascribe to what a few characters in my Heiress of Magic book say about it:
“Happy endings exist!”
“In your butt-hole maybe. When you have a good sh*t.”
Although, seriously, why talk about happy endings when happy moments exist? Those are the ones we should grasp onto with all our strength while we can and enjoy. That’s hard for me as a paranoid obsessive-compulsive-disorder sufferer to do, being almost constantly bombarded with terrors and anxieties, but I’m trying. As one of my characters does:
I luxuriate in the lush carpet underfoot caressing the spaces between my toes. Step after step, my shameless feet dip into it: a little bliss, a strip of rapture.
I take my piteous pleasures where I find them.
As to how things are going with me, I’ve started using my paranoia to curb the OCD. It’s almost like I’m a normal person at the moment. Yay! I suppose we’ll find out how long that lasts.
Every day brings a new fear. One day I’m terrified of this, the next day of that. My friend said I should be a fatalist and it stuck in my head. Now I’m like “Yeah, everything can kill you, but it probably won’t if you’re not stupid.” Don’t quote me on that, though.
The cats… Zulejka hates the crap out of Sep. Sometimes she hisses if he just looks at her. I think I need to find another home for the dude. He’s so adorable. Anyone want a sweet ginger cat? Loves to cuddle and he’s like a huge stuffed animal?
You can probably tell how annoyed Zulejka is. She’s like, “Dude, get your butt out of my face or I’m gonna bite it off.”
Anyway, if anyone’s curious about what the heck I write book-wise, I’m trying to put together a goodie bag (read: collection) with excerpts from my novels and short stories so people can check out samples, since I write so much diverse crap I don’t have a single work that’s representative of all I write.
In any case, thanks for reading and I wish you all as many happy moments in your life as you can handle.