Strawberries by Matt Zandstra
An avatar with your ex-lover’s eyes and your husband’s cheekbones. An animated, specter-like Jolly Green Giant emerging from the canned food aisle to chase down two children. Reminiscing about sharing ice cream and sex and cold beer with a man whose consciousness only now exists online.
These unforgettable elements permeate the pages of Matt Zandstra’s “Strawberries,” a story that serves as a terrific example of how a writer can take a familiar idea like the impact of advancing technology and make it feel fresh via a highly specific situation and unique details. On a Tuesday marked by malfunctioning machines—disobedient smart cars and refrigerators, failing lights and online payment systems—protagonist Julia spends her lunch hour at the local superstore, a futuristic landscape that takes targeted marketing to its absurd yet believable extreme. In the story’s opening beats, Zandstra gives his readers one last moment to observe their recognizable, natural environment before fully immersing them into his speculative world. Julia feels the fresh sea air blow across the highway as she watches a hawk descend upon its prey before lowering her “specs” and disappearing behind the glass structure set into a hill.
Over the next twenty-plus pages, “Strawberries” uses the structural scaffolding of the grocery trip to create an entertaining plot that weaves a deeper story beneath it. Grounded in frequent but expertly executed moments of backstory and flashback, the narrative holds a haunting mirror up to Julia and her current situation. As Zandstra writes in his author’s note, “I knew that the world would fall apart around her, resonating with something broken and unresolved in her past […] I needed to uncover what was broken in her and to understand the resonance.” What seems at first like a melancholy meditation on technology quickly amplifies into an exploration of marriage and social media, memory and interpersonal connection, with stakes that manage to be both public and deeply personal.
Ultimately, Zandstra’s work reads like a mixture of Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone, offering sharp but nuanced observations about human psychology and the myriad ways big business and technology take advantage of it. This combined with inventive and surreal details that feel simultaneously sweeping and intimate in scope makes this narrative one to remember. –CRAFT
They were calling it Glitch Tuesday.
“A woman menaced by a jackhammer,” said the radio.
“It’s all hitting the fan today,” Philip said. He bit into a slice of toast.
Julia had woken to the sound of a car clipping a line of parked vehicles followed by silence and then the baby wail of half a dozen alarms.
Now she watched a little muscle flex at Philip’s temple as he ate. When she sipped her tea, she found that it tasted subtly of vomit. “How old is the milk?” she said.
Philip shrugged and continued chewing. He held up one finger to indicate words to come. Once he had swallowed, he said, “I don’t know. Check the fridge.”
“Jesus, Philip, thanks for the help.”
He shrugged. “Just a thought.”
The display on the fridge, which should have shown the list of chilled goods and their dates, offered only the word CONNECTING and a single flashing ellipsis. The air inside was stale and, when she pressed the back of her hand to the milk bottle, she found it warm. “Half the food is spoiled,” she said.
Philip sighed a little theatrically. “It’s the rise of the machines,” he said.
She looked at the contents of the fridge, all of it now potentially treacherous. “I’ll get some basics later.”
It was irritating, she thought. Maddening. And yet, even so, there was something liberating about things breaking.
She was careful to switch the car to manual before driving to work. The office was a few miles out of town along a three-lane highway.
At lunchtime, she drove back toward town but took the superstore slip road and parked next to a cart corral.
The store was a corrugated glass-fronted box set into the chalk hill. Above it, a sparrow hawk hung against electric blue and surveilled a patch of scrubland. She leaned briefly against the car and took a breath. The parking lot was half-empty and she enjoyed the space around her—a marked grid of unoccupied bays. It was pleasant after the jostle of the office. The air blew in fresh from the sea across the highway—at odds with the sun’s warmth and, for a moment, she thought she might just stay right where she was. She locked the car and walked to the entrance. The hawk dead-dropped onto invisible prey.
As she entered and selected a basket, she enabled the store layer on her specs. It meant putting up with all sorts of advertising but you couldn’t argue with a twenty-percent discount. Besides, the place did look more attractive clad in virtual wallpaper. It brightened, its colors blossomed cartoon clean, every edge sharp. A market garden took root in the veg section. Breeze-quivered vines curled around the produce bins. Lazy fake bees pollinated virtual flowers. Julia bent and reached through the vegetation for a pack of tomatoes.
Her fingers closed on her prize. She felt the slip of the cellophane, the give of flesh beneath. Crouched there, her arm still outstretched, she saw a pale blue Airtex shirt appear above her. A supermarket uniform. She straightened and dropped the pack into her basket. The figure beside her was semi-transparent. She could see a bin of cauliflowers through its branded shirt and well-defined male chest. Beyond that, two children skipped and nudged. A tag floated over its head that read HERE TO HELP!
“You know, we have organic too,” the avatar said.
Julia blink-clicked the apparition’s dismiss button. “No thank you,” she said curtly, determined to leave no opening for further conversation. She waited but the figure remained resolutely present. She blicked again. It watched her, undismissed.
She sighed. Bitten by the glitch. She removed her specs and the supermarket deadened. The avatar disappeared. The market garden dissolved. And the unadorned world seemed suddenly unreal. There was a smear of trailed muck on the floor where a cleaner had turned a mop. A little plastic label on the shelf above the tomatoes showed a hefty price hike compared to the clean floating number she had seen through her specs. She pushed the glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. That was how they got you. Penalties and rewards. The avatar reappeared.
“Well at least keep quiet, then.” She looked properly at its face for the first time and it watched her back through Sam’s eyes. It had a familiar set about its cheekbones too. Philip’s cheekbones. Jesus. Her ex-lover’s gaze framed by her husband’s skull. It was an old trick.
Their faces were associated with her profile. Even now, she often visited Sam’s social media accounts. And she swapped domestic trivia with Philip every day. The supermarket had simply merged their features to generate a face they thought she’d trust. A face they could use to sell shampoo and pasta to her. No mystery. And yet these familiar aspects in combination seemed at once both alien and intimate. The contradiction struck her with an almost physical force. Sam’s eyes, intelligent and glinting with humor. And not just his eyes. The avatar had a quirk of the mouth that belonged to him too. It was the liveliness in his stolen features that assaulted her. Because Sam, the real Sam, would never look her in the eye again. He would never smile at her.
She walked right through the thing.
At the entrance to the cans aisle, Julia paused and watched a boy and a girl baiting the Jolly Green Giant. The boy, his eyes magnified by supermarket-supplied kidzpecs, had discovered a trigger point beside a stand of everlastingly sharp kitchen knives. Several times the children approached this magic patch and then wheeled away. Finally, the boy stretched out his foot and stomped it down square in the zone. Summoned, the giant trundled out from his aisle rumbling HO HO HO like a big green beardless Santa. And then, in the absence of any further programming, it stood there looking faintly embarrassed for several beats before it disappeared anticlimactically. For all that the chimera was nothing but code, Julia found herself feeling sorry for it, trapped there in its single endless cycle. But the children laughed, delighted, and began their stalking again.
As she shopped, looking now for a red pepper, Julia kept half an eye on the palm-sized friends window that floated, translucent, to the left of her view field. As her head turned, so it moved. The currently selected tab showed her contacts as dots on a map beside a list of status updates. Sometimes the dots moved like fat flies on a windowpane.
There was Karen in her bookshop. Her mood-tag read SERENE. And Julia could imagine that. Karen gathered a little field of library about her—a stillness and a remoteness.
There was Liz probably at the gym. Her mood was KNACKERED! The exclamation was a reminder that Liz brought energy even to exhaustion.
Philip was at the MegaUnit construction site. It was to be the largest fixed-price store in the world, he said. And then, “Now that’s progress.” At first, he had ladled on the irony but he’d been working hard on the project for months and he’d come to mean it. Value for money was nothing to sneer at, he said. Especially these days. He was probably in his office arguing with contractors. He was FRUSTRATED.
There was nothing wrong with Philip. Philip was great. A solid presence. “I’m right here,” he said to her shortly after they started dating. “I’m always right here.” And it was true. To him, she knew, that mattered. He was present. But Julia barely noticed the steadfast present. She slipped between versions of the past and an array of possible futures. The present was nothing. The present was beneath contempt. Poor Philip.
And inevitably there was Sam. His dot sat on the map, always unmoving, no larger than the others but demanding Julia’s attention.
“We have organic peppers too,” said the avatar behind her.
“I thought we’d agreed you weren’t going to talk.” She quickened her pace, leaving the produce garden for the supermarket’s arid can and packet interior.
“I’m not sure we agreed. Did we agree?” the avatar said. Then: “What about strawberries? Did you forget strawberries?”
Damn. She did need strawberries. When she turned, she caught sight of his face again, those powder-paint blue eyes, that faintly quizzical look. As if she were a little amusing and he might yet share the joke with her. She imagined the way she must seem up there in that calculator mind—not much more than a collection of records and behaviors, including all those hundreds of times she had bought strawberries in here. How predictable! How obvious her lapse. What an opportunity for making a sale. Whilst pretending to know her. Wearing Sam’s eyes.
Across, at the further reaches of the supermarket, a light fluttered and dimmed. The change gave the store a slant like a listing ship. She collected a plastic punnet of strawberries.
They had eaten strawberries a lot that last summer. They ate them in the garden at night sitting on white molded plastic furniture. They devoured ice cream too, and cold beer so strong with hops it tasted of grapefruit. Julia needed a harsher edge to scrape against the sweetness, so she took up smoking again. She knew that all of it, except perhaps the fruit, would have to be surrendered in any case.
Sam was lovely. But so obviously a fuckup. She had seen it in him right from the start and she kept the end of them in mind. It seemed only sensible. He pitched himself at the world with a wiry, nervy kind of energy, an amphetamine clench and chew. He was someone you remembered, not someone you woke up with years later.
He resented that understanding in her, she knew. That she held back from him. That her understanding of him was so fixed. It made him prerejected, he said. And what was he supposed to do with that?
A few nights after he left while she slept, he came back to see her. He told her about Jean. He looked relieved when he saw she wasn’t going to plead or accuse. He had been sorry but not penitent. He was sorry for her. And for himself. Sorry that he had to come back and rip the fucking heart out of her and carry that with him.
She still dreamed of the night she woke alone. She dreamed, too, of another night and of the last girl he ever left—the girl who lay there on the bed as he fell. And then sometimes she was Sam falling. Suspended between the window and the concrete promise of smack and smash.
“Bollocks to this.” The darkening supermarket seemed suddenly unsafe. As if it really was sinking and, by staying, she was like those people who remain in their seats to drown because they’ve been told to or because they’re guarding their luggage. The people who can’t process the way the course of things can break.
She put the basket down carefully beside stacked spaghetti hoops and looked around as if this were a transgressive thing. They can’t arrest you for leaving things behind, though. She’d go to the sea maybe. She stepped away. She’d—
“What about the ice cream?” said the avatar.
Philip had known Sam since University. So he heard about what happened before she did.
Her summer with Sam had long faded by then. She had fallen into marriage and a life that seemed more or less friction free. She worked at a garden center and watered plants and priced stock and moved things about because Philip earned plenty and she really couldn’t make herself care enough to become important. It was not that nothing mattered. More a sense that something indefinably significant was waiting in her future, something that made the present seem like a perpetual prelude to the real thing. Or maybe she had missed her moment altogether. That probably happened to people all the time. She carried the scent of earth home with her mixed with a musk from the perfumed candles they sold and pink hand-wash gunk from the staff toilets.
Philip stood in the kitchen. He had arranged himself and it was impossible to imagine him engaged in a task, in making tea or reading a newspaper. He was entirely waiting for her. “It’s Sam,” he said.
He told her and it was as if she knew already. As if the fall had been carried with her forever. Plunging. Unforgiving. She felt glad for a moment. It sometimes seemed to her that she was stuck forever on the edge of a new world. Only by breaking the old one could she free herself from stasis.
“You know he broke up with—thingie. With Jean?”
It was always better when things broke. You might as well recognize it, that secret pleasure in bad things. If you don’t recognize it, perhaps it will take root in you on the sly.
The beautiful moment in the air, though. Then, with a kind of tearing, she imagined the impact—its brute dullness. She reached for him in her mind and found him already absent from her future. She had not realized until that moment that she had been saving him—a vision of them both—for some half-formed new act.
Sam had found his way to bed with a girl at a party. After sex they dozed. Then slept. The girl woke cold in an empty bed. There was only a sheet on it and across the room a thin curtain billowed inward.
As she reached to close the window, the girl heard a sound from outside. A woman’s cry, perhaps, and then a siren. She covered her breasts with her left arm and leaned carefully out.
Had he been awake as he fell? Julia dreamed of it later, over and over. The knowing of the fall, the absolute awareness of up-rushing solidity. The peace and the fear.
“Anyway, he took something. A lot of something. And somehow he ended up out of a window. Maybe off a balcony.”
She said, “What?”
“The strawberries. Wouldn’t they go better with ice cream?”
She stopped and turned.
He stood beside her abandoned basket. He seemed so sad that she was leaving. Or keen to keep her buying. She imagined a barracks for supermarket avatars. How they’d be beaten if they didn’t make their quota. She snorted at the thought. But ice cream. She could take it to the beach. Call in sick. Or even better, she could blame the glitches. Cars weren’t starting. Basements were flooding. It would be easy enough to find an excuse today with everything breaking down.
“Fine,” she said.
A fat lady in Lycra watched this exchange with naked interest, leaning on the bar of her cart.
Julia retrieved her basket.
This was the darker end of the store. One light strip had failed altogether, another was flickering now. The freezers were lit from inside, though. Canister after canister of ice cream.
Some nights, she and Sam would eat a whole tub of ice cream between them, mining seams of cookie dough or butterscotch. The pleasure was in the touching of their knuckles as they dug. In the dizzying concentration of sugar. In giving or accepting the gift of hidden treasure. Like falling in love between neighboring plots in a gold rush.
Even so, she knew him, and she let him know it. “When you’re gripped by your next obsession,” she teased, “I’ll get to plant flowers in my garden again.”
It maddened him. “Why would you say that? We’re here now. You and me.”
She became aware of the supermarket again, of the avatar watching her indecision.
“It must be a pain. Always seeing the planning, never the consummation,” she said.
The avatar considered. “You take your pleasures where you can, I suppose,” he said. “The possibility of happiness is constant. The availability of resources does not affect it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, depending on what people can afford, I know when to suggest a premium brand and when to find a miraculous bargain. And the pleasure is the same.”
She pulled on the freezer door and it gave with a small sucking protest. The container was slightly furred by a layer of frost. “This one, I think,” she said.
A uniformed staff member trotted past them, looking grim and purposeful. “All-hands-on-deck, I suppose,” Julia said. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“Oh, there’s nothing to me. I’m all yours.”
She shifted her basket to her left hand. Her friend statuses had updated. Karen was no longer having a good day. CARD PAYMENTS CRAPPED OUT. STRESS!
Liz had posted a video of a runner breasting a tape. Underneath, her status read, I NOW DESERVE CHOCOLATE.
If Julia took pleasure in broken things, it was only momentary. Then, like someone good, she was sorry. Most especially for Jean, who had, it seemed, won a macabre game of pass-the-parcel by still being Sam’s girlfriend when he landed arse first on a parked car. She took on the job of spokesperson, sending out emails and updating her status.
The fall did not kill him. At least not right away.
SAM IS CRITICAL AT ST JOSEPH’S.
FIRST BREATH ON HIS OWN.
No one believed he would survive for long. He was just too smashed up.
TODAY SAM’S EYES FLICKERED.
And then, suddenly it seemed he might make it.
BRAIN PATTERNS ARE GOOD! THAT SPIKE THERE IS SAM SAYING HELLO!
Julia almost believed he would continue to unfurl and fill like one of those car-lot air-blown dancer men.
If Jean knew there was a barrier, a point beyond which he would neither inflate nor unfold, she never said.
THEY FITTED SAM FOR SPECS AND A NEURO-BAND TODAY. HE’S COMING ONLINE!
And his name was a hotlink into a new account with a single status.
IT SPEAKS! SAM HERE. LOL (ONLY I CAN’T LOL. I CAN LOLL, THOUGH. AND MAKE A NOISE LIKE HNNNNURG WHICH WILL HAVE TO DO).
He was back. And Jean quietly left.
Julia blicked the palette to activate Sam’s profile. The live feed showed him in the hospital bed, unmoving as always. They had turned him since she’d last looked, though, giving the illusion that he had shifted for himself. The tube protruding from his mouth looked vaguely phallic, like some odd twist on blow job porn. A little array of lights shone on a panel behind the headboard.
“What goes with ice cream and strawberries?” said the avatar ruminatively.
She found her eyes drawn to the lights. They glowed with primary color, bright against the room’s snowfield theme. His bedclothes were cream. The wheelie table which hung over him like a gantry had steel legs and a light brown laminated surface. A water jug was made of transparent bluish plastic with a white lid. His flesh was pale. Only that little Christmas tree of yellow and red lights provided contrast. She screwed up her eyes to focus.
“Beer. Jules. You’ll want beer.”
The avatar’s voice pulled her from the image. And she blinked, embarrassed. She’d been doing this a lot recently. Stopping dead still and staring, lost in revery.
“Beer. You’ll want beer,” it said again.
They drank beer. That was right. On a hot day, he’d smell like ale and garden sweat and laundry and sex and cigarettes and honey. Once, after they’d labored in the garden, she turned and licked his neck. Salty. And she pressed the bottle’s cold body to roll above his hip so that he yelped and wriggled.
“You’re never really here, though, Jules,” he said. She both did and didn’t know what he meant by it.
She decided then. “Okay. I guess I’m cutting work.”
There were a hundred brands and none, at first, seemed familiar. It hadn’t been that long ago but he had always chosen the beer. Left to herself she’d have opted for a crisp white wine and not one of these dark hoppy concoctions. They made her think of floorboards and barrels. They made her think of hunters. Then, looking at the cartons, she recognized a fish leaping from a tun-colored creek. It shivered drops of water against a distant golden mountain and she hitched her thumb and forefinger into the cardboard. She felt and heard the bottles clink gently within the pull and motion. Apparently, yes, she was going to drink. With the new weight stowed, the basket’s handle bit now into her elbow crook and she transferred it into her hand, hanging it low.
“Another excellent choice,” said the avatar.
None of the technology was terribly new. It had just come together at last in a way that might give a kind of online life to Sam and the few others damaged like him. He could focus one eye enough to read. And, it turned out, he could think. Thanks to a neuro-band that monitored his brain patterns, this was enough to drive a computer interface.
While his body remained slack in a hospital bed, Sam returned to the world through forums and news walls, articles and web pages. He had a camera set up in his room so that everyone could see the pampered ruin his body had become. Lurking on his profile page, Julia found herself watching it for hours at a time. It showed him shrunken and broken. His mouth slack.
On social media, though, he was just as energetic as he had always been. His prose was muscular. His words tumbled over erratic punctuation. His humor was bitter and unflinching.
FIVE HAND MOVEMENTS I KINDA MISS.
WHAT’S BROWN AND STICKY. NO. NOT A STICK. NOT THIS TIME. NURSE!
The air changed around her. There was a general movement toward the checkouts. Another supermarket light must have failed. An unspoken threshold had been reached, and now the store no longer felt viable. Julia looked about her and saw distant daylight, muted by a filter on the window. She detected the draw of it. Daylight seemed like a good idea.
The Lycra lady passed them, marching her cart with a grim focus, as if it were a weapon.
Woodland animals had strayed from the cookie aisle, and they scampered around underfoot, tumbling and capering. Distantly, she heard the Jolly Green Giant HO-HO-HOing maniacally. The dots on her friend map were all moving too. Moving and winking out.
A few days after he came back online, she found a friend request waiting for her.
I’M SORRY, JULES. KISS AND BE FRIENDS?
She accepted. FRIENDS YES. BUT NO KISSING, OK?
DEAL. I’M NOT MUCH OF A KISSER THESE DAYS ANYWAY.
DON’T KID YOURSELF. YOU NEVER WERE.
So, they were friends again. The tone between them was barbed and jokey—a chummy kind of paldom they’d never known before. If the erotic charge between them had not entirely disappeared, it had at least shifted, become something rueful—abstract and lightly shared.
He became one of her online stations. Karen, Philip, Liz, Sam. Sam again. And she watched him, waiting for a movement. Occasionally a nurse would appear and perform some maintenance task. People arrived at his room and sat beside his bed looking attentive and bored. There was no sound on the feed, but she saw their mouths moving. These visits seemed faintly ridiculous to her – even insulting. He was much more himself online. Why visit his flesh? Why remind him of himself?
Each evening his mother visited. Unlike his friends, she barely spoke. She settled into her chair and cracked open a thick paperback. She did not seem sad to Julia, or even concerned. It was simply inevitable, this sitting. It was duty. No, not even duty, it was just the way it had to be. Cats needed feeding, nephews needed birthday cards, hospital beds required attendance.
She watched her life with Philip in the same distant way she regarded Sam’s progress. They ate at a French place every other Thursday. On Saturday mornings they went to the gym. Afterward, they wandered through the craft market. Over coffee, Philip sent surreptitious work emails and Julia planned gardens she would never plant. Once, when she caught him working, he said, “You have to actually build stuff, you know, Julia. It doesn’t just happen.”
Julia regarded her basket and the evidence it held. Nothing for supper. Nothing sensible for lunch. This trip had not been a success. It had been all creep and no mission. She should take this evidence back, or abandon it. Instead, she shifted the basket again, and headed for the checkouts.
The children were still skipping about near the can aisle and tormenting the Jolly Green Giant. As Julia passed, the lank-haired boy stepped up to the trigger point and once again out the giant lumbered. HO HO HO! it rumbled. And then it took on that puzzled expression. It looked about itself. This time, instead of disappearing, it frowned and focused. Its hands still rested on its hips. When it caught sight of the children its open face hardened and shaded from green to a livid red, and it first snarled and then roared. It bore down upon them. The Jolly Green Giant did not let up as the children squealed and fled. It pursued them, stretching out its arms, flexing its suddenly taloned fingers.
“That’ll teach them, I suppose,” said Julia.
The children reached the sanctuary of a tired-looking woman with bunched up black hair and stars tattooed up her arms. The boy tugged on her T-shirt, shouting, “Mum! Mum! It’s chasing us!”
Like the giant, Sam had come out to play whenever anyone came calling. For a year or so after his appearance online he became a minor celebrity. He gave interviews using a smooth synthetic voice that reminded Julia a little of a golden age James Bond. He wrote a book. Not a very good book, Julia thought, but it got some attention.
HEY! WANNA CYBER? he messaged her one day.
OH YECH, she typed back.
Later she watched his room, which was half-dark for the evening shift, and wondered if he had been serious. On the table beside Sam’s huddled body a book lay splayed. It must have been left by his mother, since even reaching for an object was beyond him. He could read his own books though, through those goggles, turning virtual pages with only his mind. Did he look at porn, she wondered, or was he free of all that?
Philip read the newspaper on an old tablet and chewed his food very thoroughly. Sometimes she watched him and thought about the word mastication. How it was like masturbation. And it had the slick click of smacking saliva in it. And mash in there too. Sam ate mashed food. YUM BANANA PUREE he posted. And he shot up an image of a nurse doing something to him that looked very much like smearing yogurt round the inside of his mouth. It looked like a punishment or, at the very least, a procedure.
When she visited, Sam’s mother brought a rainbow bag. It showed a stylized compressed arc over a cartoon hillside with a river and a town. She would arrive and lay out her book and a little transistor radio, so perfectly redundant. As if to fight the room’s blandness, she always wore something bright: a shrieking red blouse, or a scarf so green it left ecstasy traces on the stream image.
On the feed today, though, Sam’s room had those lights providing color, like neon candy on the wall behind his bed.
There was a knot of activity at the checkouts. The self-pay systems were down and harassed-looking staff had opened three tills. The queues snaked back as far as the produce aisles.
Julia joined the nearest line and put her basket down with relief. The avatar joined her. “You don’t need to watch me now. I’m buying things,” she said. “Look!”
“Where are you going to eat them?”
It was a lovely day outside, the light yellowy with a slight breeze to soften the heat. She thought of sand between her toes.
“The beach,” she said. “I’m going to cut work and eat ice cream on the beach.”
“That would be nice.”
The supermarket PA came online with a little preparatory fizz. The announcer had his mouth too close to the mic so that his voice sounded thick and frayed. “We… I’m sorry… due to a fault we are currently unable to accept card or data payments. We can only process cash transactions. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.”
“What?” The Lycra lady, who had been engrossed in her phone, looked up and mugged outraged astonishment. “What am I supposed to do with all this?”
What is anyone supposed to do? Julia thought. What is the plan now? She patted her pocket and felt a note crackle. There would only be one, though. Would that be enough? She might have to put something back. The voices around her had taken on an urgency.
“Of course I don’t. Who has cash? Can’t you get some out?” The mother of the giant-tormentors was speaking into the air. “Well, they can’t all be out of order.”
At night, Philip watched TV shows on his tablet. He liked the documentaries best. Julia pretended to read and cycled instead through her social sites. Sooner or later, she invariably made her way to Sam’s room. The clear plastic beaker beside his bed. A crusted curl of tissue.
Once, Sam’s icon, usually gray at night, filled out with color. Philip’s screen played the Second World War in the air.
I SOMETIMES THINK I AM STILL FALLING.
She typed, ME TOO. Then she deleted it. I AM THINKING OF YOU. She deleted that too. I KNOW. She clicked on send.
A Messerschmitt began a long dive, showing its belly as it peeled from its flight. Beautiful and insane.
Once, searching for a picture on Philip’s phone, she found almost all of Sam’s links in the browser history. They had been visited over and over again. She started when Philip appeared and plucked the device from her hand.
He took in her snooping and snorted with uncharacteristic exasperation. “I love him too, you know,” he said.
Sam told Julia he dreamed of running.
YOU HATE RUNNING.
THAT WAS WHEN I HAD A CHOICE.
He had dreamed he was running a trail in the mist. He looked out seaward and saw a liner’s serene funnel framed between dunes. He passed drifts of blue flowers, their petals flecked with red, home to clusters of butterflies. He planted his foot beside an ungardened snail and onward, scaring up two yellow-backed birds. His breath came hard, time ahead of him, and, when he awoke, he went looking for Julia.
OH, SAM. I’M SO SORRY.
IGNORE ME. THIS IS THE SOBER-NONTELEPHONIC EQUIVALENT OF DRUNK DIALING.
AS IN… YOU’RE NEITHER DRUNK NOR DIALING.
AS IN THAT. I’D LIKE TO BE DRUNK THOUGH. NEED TO GET THE BLONDE NURSE TO SLIP SOMETHING INTO MY DRIP.
I AM DRINKING WINE.
THAT WOULD BE NICE. MY INSURANCE DOES NOT COVER RECREATIONAL INEBRIATION.
I’LL COME BY AND SPIKE YOU.
I WISH YOU WOULD.
Philip looked up then and raised his eyebrows at her. She was sure he always knew, somehow, whenever her mind strayed from him to the other world. He’d reach out for her hand or say, “Are you alright?”
Now she said, “Jesus, I’m fine.” And then, because he looked so puppy-wounded, she nodded at his screen. “Who’s winning the war?”
A man in a Manchester United shirt raised his voice. “I don’t care.” He leaned over the scared-looking assistant. “I’ve wasted half my morning in here. Now are you going to take my money?”
“Look, I’ve got cash,” said a weaselly man in a many pocketed jacket. “If you’re not going to pay, perhaps you could let someone else have a turn?”
England shirt turned to weasel, “Why don’t you just fucking wait?”
“We can’t take cards or data,” said the assistant, as if this might help.
A security guard ambled towards the scene. He had a professionally bored look. Wary and overweight.
“Remember that time…” she said to the avatar. Then she recalled that this thing was just a copy of some old pictures. “Never mind.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do then?” said soccer shirt to the cashier.
“Are you sure you have everything?” the avatar said to Julia.
“Well, I’m in line.”
“I just noticed those,” he indicated a section of store set up to look like a Victorian flower cart.
Even though Julia had very little interest in the forced and chemically drenched blooms you found in supermarkets, Sam had always had a touching faith in the power of flowers. After every argument or inexplicable phase of clipped silence, he’d appear with tulips or roses and thrust them toward her. And somehow it worked. Because, however crudely, he had cared enough to look for a key to making it all better. Him wanting that was often almost enough.
“I don’t need flowers,” she said.
“Just a thought,” said the avatar.
The night after their gardening she said “I am here. I’m really here.”
They were lying in bed and he reached across and squeezed her to him in a way that meant he didn’t believe her.
The hospital sat on a busy road three-quarters of the way up a steep hill. A squat collection of Victorian buildings shored up by ventilation towers and oversized wheeled dumpsters.
On impulse, she bought chocolates from a newsagent’s on the way, though she couldn’t remember Sam ever eating chocolates before. Besides, if his posts were true, he only licked at pap now. Maybe they could crush up a chocolate into the mess. Did he taste what they fed him? She should ask him.
Anyway, his mother could eat them. She thought of the stern woman inspecting their dusty ranks. Julia would see this on the monitor, sitting at home while Philip watched a documentary about ducks, or soap, or the Normans.
Julia had last visited the hospital during her mother’s final illness a decade before. It had not changed at all. The same talk shows on the same screens. The same reining in of anxiety. Sweet disinfectant smell. Calling of names. Just be glad it’s not you, and move on. Long corridors. Peering in on snatches of drama. She passed a side ward. A man sat on the edge of a bed and contemplated the enormity of movement.
She stood outside the door to Sam’s room and looked at his still form through the wire-strengthened patch of glass. Inside, a machine made a faint steam-engine noise every thirty seconds or so.
“Are you going in?” It was a nurse. A blond girl with a pretty snub nose and a small mouth, herself about to enter. She reached out and rested a hand on the metal door plate. “It’s okay. It’s fine. He’s on good form today.”
Julia thought about it. The stupidity of it. They were closer apart anyway, she thought.
“No. No it’s okay. I… got lost.”
She ate the chocolates in a waiting room surrounded by resigned petitioners. On the screen a large woman insisted that her son’s friends all loved her. “It’s not my fault,” she said, “it’s something about me.”
On the morning of the glitches, Julia and Philip looked out of the window at the line of smashed cars. “See,” she said, “sometimes stuff does just happen.”
Philip regarded the damage. “Yes,” he said, “but what do you do then? That’s the question.”
Julia felt herself overcome by a sense of vast weariness. She should check the cash in her pocket against the cost of her purchases. The total hung dull red beneath the shopping cart icon on the supermarket layer. But she did no more than pat her pocket again.
Her friend’s palette twitched for attention again.
Karen’s status now read WTF??!
Liz’s was more informative. JUST SEEN A RIOT. IN A BANK!!!
Sam’s status was empty. She checked his video feed. More lights shone behind him now. Lines and dots in red and yellow. Some of them blinking.
“Look, I’m going to write down my name here, and you can bill me for it, because you’re having a laugh now,” football shirt said.
“Yeah,” said someone else. “This is your problem.”
The queue broke up then as people pushed towards the source of the argument. Several voices were raised in complaint. Julia found herself standing alone in the sudden emptiness between the aisles and the checkouts. “Jesus, it’s kicking off.”
She looked at the avatar. It returned her gaze mildly.
“What’s going on?”
The lights in Sam’s room all switched to red.
She reached up and pinched the image close.
He was free-falling, and there was no one to help. No one was being summoned to save him.
“You knew about this,” she said, suddenly certain.
“Knew about what?”
“About Sam. He’s dying. And no one knows.”
The avatar watched her, its face composed.
“Well, I can call them,” said Julia.
The security guard pushed football shirt into an arm lock and forced him down over the conveyor belt. The Lycra woman was yelling, “Get off him. Get your hands off him!” A manager with a short gray mustache had inserted himself between her and the fight. He shouted, “The police have been called!”
Julia blicked a telephone icon. The ringtone fell into place.
“Don’t.” The avatar’s voice was soft.
“St. Joseph’s?” An operator’s voice.
“Just leave it. Please.”
“Hello?” said the operator.
“Sam?” Julia said.
“Take the strawberries and the ice cream. No one is watching. You can just walk out.”
Someone threw a punch at the security guard. The Lycra woman yelled something indistinct and angry and pushed the manager.
“I can’t do that.”
“Just let him fall, Jules.”
“This is St. Joseph’s hospital. Can I help you?”
She hung up.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Who are you?”
“I would have chosen the yellow flowers,” he said. “To say sorry.”
She turned to look for them in the display. There were daffodils there and yellow tulips.
“You know, I don’t really…” But when she turned back, the avatar had gone.
She woke in the middle of the night to find herself alone in the bed. She lay there without moving and stared at the ice cream carton on the bedside table, spoon handles crossed. She considered clearing up. Two spoons. Two glasses. Two bowls. Numerous bottles. Her head ached, and the sheets stuck clammily around her legs. The evening had chilled and the breeze coming through the window made her shiver a little. She’d sort it all out in the morning. She waited.
She walked out with the basket still on her arm. All data on her specs layer was fading now. Nothing left but Sam’s dot.
The woman with the star tattoos sat in her car’s driver seat, pressing the ignition key over and over again and shouting “Fuck!” with each push. Her giant-baiting children looked on subdued from the back seat.
Julia walked onward. There was a narrow gap in the fence at the end of the parking lot. She slipped through and followed a nettle-lined dirt path down to a main road. She waited at the crossing, but the green man never appeared. The basket handle bit into her flesh. She crossed the road at last and took the promenade steps to the beach. She found a place Sam would have liked, and opened the ice cream and the beer.
His dot blinked out at last. Sirens mingled with the complaints of gulls. The beer tasted of grapefruit.
MATT ZANDSTRA’s speculative fiction has appeared in Perihelion, AbTerra, Free Radicals Quarterly, and others. He won the Curtis Brown Prize for his novel in progress at the UEA Creative Writing MA. He lives in Brighton, UK, and can be found online @inflatableink.
Featured image by KatineArt courtesy of Pixabay