by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Redstone Science Fiction #26, July 2012
Dylan reached into his pocket and pulled out his last tenner. He didn’t especially feel like drinking coffee, but he thought it’d look strange if he didn’t get something. Charlene ordered a double mocha frappacino and lemon cupcake with cream cheese icing. Dylan got the house coffee.
“Would you like to hear an advertisement?” a voice said in Dylan’s ear as he and Charlene picked a table. He subvocalized, yes, and a catchy jingle for a laundromat down the street assaulted him. When the jingle finally ended, the voice in his head said, “Six cents have been deposited in your account.”
He smiled, trying to cover his discomposure in front of Charlene, and asked, “What were you saying?”
“Trip Trapowski,” she said. “He’s so tortured as Douglas Quaid. I never realized he could act like that.”
“Uh, yeah,” Dylan said, completely stymied. He hadn’t expected to be discussing acting and character after watching Total Recall 3: Vacation on Jupiter. Most of the comments he’d planned out during the movie had to do with the action sequences. In retrospect, that might not have been the brightest move. Nonetheless, Dylan tried gamely to engage Charlene’s interest in “the particularly good bit with the amphibi-copter” or “that really neat looking time portal.” Unfortunately, those conversation threads didn’t last long, and soon they were back in unmapped waters.
“He was just so loyal to Melina. He looked at her like she was the only real thing in his whole world.”
Dylan had to admit it was endearing that Charlene could turn a summer action flick into some kind of romance. “Well, they have quite a history from the other movies,” he said, trying not to twitch as he listened to a LOL Burger ad in his head for the hundredth time this week. It ended as always with directions to the nearest LOL Burger, in this case, right across the street. The directions were kind of redundant with the giant billboard reading “Xtra Cheez? U Can Haz!” that Dylan could read through the coffee shop window.
Nonetheless, the ad gave Dylan the option of “continued, occasional, persuasive, visual advertising” as long as he was in the area. Dylan raised his coffee cup to cover his lips and accepted with trepidation, quickly reconfiguring his settings to allow visual ads. He usually turned offers like that down, preferring to keep his ears the portals of consumerism and his eyes pure. But, after this date with Charlene, he was going to be hurting for money.
“The thing I don’t understand,” Charlene said, looking pensive, “is why that old guy was so important. I mean, jeez, if I was Trip Trapowski, or Doug Quaid, or whatever, I wouldn’t listen to some old geezer like that.”
The words were out of Dylan’s mouth before he could stop them: “What old guy?” Luckily, Charlene didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, so maybe it wasn’t so strange to not recognize the character from her description. Though, the girl who had just sat down at the table behind Charlene looked at Dylan askance.
“The doctor guy,” Charlene explained. “The guy with those memory pills. The old guy.”
“The guy with Rekall, Inc?” Dylan hazarded, thinking quickly.
“Uh… yeah…” Charlene answered. “I didn’t get that at all. What was he all about?”
The girl at the other table shook her blue-haired head, but kept her eyes on the book she was reading. Dylan started to frown at her, wondering what she thought was so funny, but he quickly realized Charlene thought the look was meant for her. He flashed Charlene a smile, and her face melted into a smile back at him. Everything forgiven.
“I love going to see movies with you,” Charlene said, reaching her hand across the table to hold his.
“Anyway,” Charlene said, “What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. That old guy who Quaid was so freaked out by. What was up with that?”
Dylan said, “The first Total Recall started with Quaid getting memory implants at Rekall, Inc. So, we can’t really be sure if all the stuff in the movies is real. Or just in Quaid’s head.” He hoped that was on the mark. And, if he was lucky, maybe the conversation would stay on the original movie now.
“There really was a first Total Recall?” Charlene asked. “I thought that starting off with number two last year was a joke. You know, ’cause there’s time travel in it.”
“Or like Star Wars,” Dylan suggested.
“Huh?” Charlene asked, but Dylan was too busy puzzling over the weird look he was getting from the blue-haired girl to answer her. He wasn’t used to getting looks like that from random girls in coffee shops. Fortunately, Charlene found herself at the end of her frappacino at just that moment. So, she missed Dylan’s lack of attentiveness. “Hey, Dilly,” she said, “I’m gonna get myself another drink. Kay?”
“Sure,” Dylan said. “I’ll be here.”
Dylan watched Charlene walk back to the register, and once she was out of hearing range, he scooted his chair around the curve of the table, bringing him closer to the blue-haired girl. Keeping his voice low, he leaned over and asked her, “What’s your problem? Huh? You keep giving me these weird looks.”
The girl’s mouth fell open, like she didn’t know what to say. The silver piercing in her lip made a strange contrast to the blank innocence in her look of surprise. Dylan held her gaze, clearly expecting an actual answer. The girl pursed her pierced lips, pulled herself back together, and said, “You haven’t seen Total Recall 3. Have you?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Dylan said. “My girlfriend and I just got back from seeing it in the theater.”
The blue-haired girl pursed her lips again and the silver ring over the bottom one wiggled a little, like she was worrying it with her tongue while thinking. “Oh,” she said. She looked toward the counter where Charlene was standing with a credit card, eyed her up and down, and then said, “I get it.”
“What?” Dylan asked, annoyed — and a little afraid that this weird girl might actually have figured him out that fast. Then, seeing Charlene on her way back with a fresh frappacino and a second cupcake, he changed his tune to “Never mind.”
Blue-hair snorted and said, “No need to get defensive. Sheesh.” But, to Dylan’s relief, she turned back to her book after rolling her eyes at him. By the time Charlene sat herself down, their unwanted neighbor already had her nose buried deep in the time-worn pages.
“I bought you a cupcake,” Charlene said. “I could see how you were eyeing mine.” She placed a pale yellow morsel of baked goodness down on a plate before him. Dylan reached for the cupcake slowly, as if afraid it might run away if he reached too fast.
“The frosting is really good too,” Charlene said, “but I wasn’t sure if you liked frosting. So, I figured plain was the safe bet.” She shrugged.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Dylan said, his mouth already full of moist but zesty, lemon cake. Her thoughtfulness almost drowned out the hit to his pride.
As they got back into discussing the movie, Dylan did most of the talking. He told Charlene all about the original. It was safer that way. Fewer ways to slip up. And, Charlene seemed genuinely interested. Besides, pedantically raving about obscure science-fiction came naturally to Dylan.
“You know,” he said. “You can upload any movie from the 1900s for free. They run ad banners along the sides, but it’s worth it. To watch all those great old movies.”
“I’ll have to look into that,” Charlene said. “Maybe you can show me where you found them?”
While they talked, Dylan noticed a strange phenomenon. Stray cats had begun conglomerating in the coffee shop.
At first, it was just a grey tabby that snuck in at the feet of a customer. But, then there were several — orange and Jellicle — and, a few came trotting out from the kitchen. He wondered why no one shooed them away. Then, he wondered why no else seemed to notice them at all.
Then, a particularly plump orange-striped cat jumped up onto a nearby table, and opened its mouth wide in a giant caterwaul. Simultaneously, a vacant white space, like a hole in the fabric of reality, popped into place above it’s head. Dylan was so surprised he jumped back, flinging out his arms and knocking over his chair in the process.
As he righted his chair, Dylan figured out what was going on. The white space was a cartoony speech bubble and it filled itself with the words: “I made u a cheezburger but I eated it!” It was like God opened a portal to him and typed out those words. Except, in this case, God was the LOL Burger corporation.
Dylan seated himself in his chair again, still surrounded by the spooky computer-virtual cats. They looked completely real until the speech and thought bubbles popped up over their heads. One by one, the cats “told” him things like “Goto LOL Burger LOL!” and “Yum xtra cheezy! LOL :-)” Then, one by one they filed away. Dylan closed his eyes and tried to rub the stain they’d left on his retinas away.
“You okay?” Charlene asked, probably for the third time. When Dylan dared open his eyes again, he saw that she looked worried and was mopping herself with napkins.
“Uh, yeah…” Dylan said, “I’m sorry…” He must have knocked Charlene’s frappacino into her lap during his convulsions. “I got something in my eye,” he said, cringing at the literal truth and simultaneous lameness of his excuse.
Charlene gave him an inquisitive look, but when he didn’t say anything further she just shook her head and smiled. “If you’re okay,” she said, standing and looking about for the restroom. “I’m gonna get myself cleaned up, okay?”
“Sure,” Dylan said, wondering if she knew about the LOL cats somehow. He’d tried to keep the blaring ads in his ears secret from her, but something about her look made him think she knew anyhow.
Besides, those cats were so vivid it was hard to believe anyone in the coffee shop hadn’t seen them.
“Why don’t you just tell her?” Blue-hair asked, clearly having waited until Charlene was safely away.
Dylan twisted around in his chair to look at the girl who kept bothering him. “Why are you eavesdropping on me?” he asked.
Blue-hair shrugged. “None of my friends wanted to see the new Total Recall,” she said. “So, I had no one to talk to about it. Besides, your girlfriend is cute.”
Dylan couldn’t tell if she meant it or was playing with him.
“Seriously,” Blue-hair said. “You should tell her. I think she’d understand.”
“What do you know?” Dylan said, more harshly than he meant. The stress of the evening was getting to him, and he was tired of playing his made-up part. “Her dad owns three LOL Burgers, and I couldn’t even get a job at LOL Burger last summer.” That wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough. The point was that Charlene had more money and fewer worries than him. It stung, and he’d been doing everything he could to hide his money-troubles from her. “If she knew I couldn’t afford to take her to the movies and buy the rights to maintain the memories,” his voice was losing its anger and taking on a tremulous edge, “…she’d dump me in a second.”
“If you think that little of her,” the blue-haired girl snapped back, “she should.”
Dylan hadn’t expected that. It surprised him enough that he really thought about it, and he was still thinking about it when Charlene returned. “Charlie,” he said, “are you really interested in downloading old movies?”
“Yeah, sure.” She was poking at her plate, scraping her nail on its surface. “I wonder what makes the plates here sparkly like that.”
“Mineral dishwasher,” Dylan answered, not thinking about the fact that Charlene would wonder how he knew. “After the wash-cycle, it sprays all the dishes with vitamin and mineral supplements.”
From the way Charlene was looking at him, Dylan could tell she was putting the pieces together. He really needed to learn how to keep his mouth shut. Or maybe Blue-hair was right, and he shouldn’t pre-judge Charlene for judging him. Either way, it was too late to keep this one in the bag.
“I worked the kitchens at Hot Diggity Dog last summer,” he said.
Charlene smiled noncommittally. Maybe being honest with her wouldn’t be so bad. “So,” she asked, “what movie should we go see next week?”
Dylan glanced behind Charlene and could see the blue-haired girl looking at him. Expectantly. He decided to take the plunge. “I can’t really afford to go to a movie next week,” he said. He couldn’t see Charlene’s reaction; he couldn’t bring himself to look up at her. Instead, he fiddled with the healthily fortified plate in front of him.
When she didn’t say anything, he forced himself to go on. “Actually, I couldn’t really afford the movie tonight either. I…” He bit his lip, but he knew he had to say it. “I only had enough for the ticket in — I didn’t pay for the memory-rights.”
“What do you mean?” Charlene asked.
“They wiped the movie from my memory as soon as the credits were over. I don’t actually remember anything other than sitting in the theatre next to you. Nothing on the screen.”
“I didn’t know you could do that,” Charlene said.
She lived in such a different world. She’d never had to pinch pennies in her life.
“So…” Charlene said, dragging the syllable out, “when will you be able to afford to go see a movie again?”
“I don’t think you understand,” Dylan tried to say, but Charlene was still speaking: “Two weeks? ‘Cause, we could do something different next weekend.”
“Going out to the theater costs six times as much as downloading a movie at home, and…,” he made a quick mental calculation, “…almost a hundred times as much as uploading the memory-rights direct.”
Charlene was looking at him like, “So?”
Dylan opened his mouth to explain but found himself at a loss. He didn’t know how to tell her that he’d only asked her to the movies in the first place to impress her. He hadn’t expected it to become their weekly routine, and if he kept taking her to the theater, even without buying memory-rights, he wouldn’t have enough money to make it through the rest of the semester. He’d already spent most of his savings from the summer at Hot Diggity Dog, and his scholarships barely covered room and board.
He knew he’d be working at Hot Diggity Dog again this summer, but he couldn’t face the idea of going back to work before the end of the semester. When would he study? Between work and school, he wouldn’t have time for Charlene then anyway.
That’s what Dylan should have said, and maybe Charlene would have understood. But Dylan would have had to understand it himself to explain it, and all he knew was that thinking about Charlene and money made him feel bad. Inadequate. All he’d wanted was to talk to a girl about the coolness that was Total Recall and its sequels. Instead, he couldn’t remember the third one, and the girl across from him had never heard of the first. It’d be another two weeks before he could afford the direct-to-brain upload rights… And he was more excited about that than kissing Charlene goodnight.
“This isn’t working,” Dylan said. “I don’t think I can afford to go out with you.”
“Afford?” Charlene asked, clearly affronted. But Dylan didn’t know what to say to make it better. “I never expected you to spend money you couldn’t. I never expected you to spend money on me at all.”
Dylan started to point out that she’d expected to keep going to movies together, but he didn’t think that would help. So, for the first time that evening, he kept his mouth shut.
“Would it help if I paid for the movie?” Charlene asked, but she could see Dylan bristle at the suggestion. “Okay… What if we… What if we just do stuff that’s cheaper? Those old movies…”
Her voice was almost pleading now, and Dylan felt bad, knowing he was hurting her. He tried to picture hanging out in his dorm room watching old movies together, but it was too late. Something about the way she said “old movies,” or maybe just the fact that looking at her made him feel even more inadequate now that he couldn’t afford her or make her happy, pushed him over the edge. “I’m sorry,” he said, and that was all.
Charlene pulled her jacket and bag off the back of her chair where they’d been hanging and put them on. She could tell it was over. They were over. But, before she left, she said, “Even if I couldn’t remember the movie — if all I could remember was sitting next to you in the theater — I wouldn’t want to give that up.” She shrugged. “I guess you would.”
Dylan watched Charlene walk out of the coffee shop. He wanted to comfort her; tell her she’d get over him; but, instead, he just let her go. The door swung shut behind her.
“Ouch,” the blue-haired girl said, reminding Dylan she was there.
Dylan took a few moments to recover himself, then he said, “Well, that’s what comes from following your advice.” He meant it playfully — like the banter they’d had earlier — but, it may have sounded more like an accusation.
“You’re better off,” Blue-hair said. “A relationship built on mistrust and inequity is worse than no relationship at all.”
“Uh, yeah,” Dylan said, hoping she was right. “Inequity” and “mistrust” seemed like a bit of an exaggeration, but, it was true that he and Charlene hadn’t had much in common. Though, she hadn’t seemed to mind that.
“So,” Dylan said, trying to keep the conversation going, tying to keep his mind off of the empty space that used to hold Charlene, “you’ve see the original Total Recall?”
“Sure,” Blue-hair replied. “It’s a classic.”
“Much better than the sequel,” Dylan added without even thinking about it.
Blue-hair smiled at him, and he felt a little better. She wasn’t like Charlene, but she was kind of cute. In an off-beat way. “What about Star Wars?” Dylan asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I have a complete familiarity with pop culture from the 1900s through today.”
“Huh?” Dylan asked, thinking that he might have more in common with this girl than he did with Charlene.
“It helps me relate to and understand clients,” she said.
“Oh.” Dylan wondered what it’d be like to kiss a girl with a pierced lip. And what other piercings she might have. “What kind of clients? What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a counselor,” Blue-hair said. “The free-trial version of Emilia.”
Dylan let her comment sit for a moment, but it didn’t sit well. “Free-trial version?” he asked.
“Yes. In our session tonight, I helped you locate a problem in your life and solve it.”
Dylan felt a sinking feeling inside. He looked around the coffee shop, searching for a sane point of reference. Finally, he caught the eye of the girl at the counter. “Just a minute,” he told Emilia, “I’ll be back.” Dylan’s heart was pounding as he walked up to the coffee shop counter.
“Have you seen a blue-haired girl here tonight?” he asked the barista, almost whispering in his attempt to keep his voice down. Feeling crazy.
“Blue hair?” The barista said, louder than he liked, and laughed. “That went out of fashion, like, a century ago.”
He looked back at Emilia, but she didn’t look offended. “So…?”
Dylan stepped away from the counter feeling light-headed. He tried to remember when he’d first seen Emilia walk into the cupcake shop. He wasn’t sure. He’d been paying all his attention to Charlene then.
“Is something wrong?” Emilia asked, looking worried, as Dylan returned to his table. “I’m not authorized to help you with more than one problem per session.”
Dylan stared at Emilia, and she looked completely real. As real as the table she was sitting at. As real as Charlene.
“If you found our session tonight helpful,” Emilia said, flashing Dylan a smile that made him feel like tearing his eyes out, “you can sign up for the full version at an introductory price of just…”
But Dylan had stopped listening. He couldn’t believe he’d broken up with Charlene on this advertisement’s advice. He might as well rush off and buy a LOL burger every time he passed a billboard. Or every time he saw a cat…
“What am I going to do?” he said, putting his head in his hands. If Charlene were here, she’d take his hands in hers and tell him everything would be okay. Instead, Emilia told him, “I can’t talk about that until you download the full version.”
Dylan glared at her and tried to figure out how to undo the damage she’d done. If he participated in one of those psych studies, maybe it would pay enough to buy Charlene a dozen roses…
“Don’t wait too long,” Emilia said, rising from her chair and closing her book. “The current prices won’t last.” Then, before disappearing with an abruptness that left an orange after-image in Dylan’s eyes, she added, “Twenty-five cents have been deposited in your account.“