The day they turned on the Machine, the company made three million dollars. In the first month, the value of their shares increased twenty-fold. Meanwhile, the country was in turmoil from civil unrest, looming war, and rapidly rising unemployment.
Then someone mentioned the Machine to the media. Connections were made, conclusions drawn, outcry raised. They turned off the Machine.
But the project was too profitable to abandon. The company hired an army of programmers to somehow teach the Machine empathy. Even more money was spent on marketing. “The Heart,” they called it now. Once connected to the fine network of veins that composed the internet, it would pump information in and out, making decisions in a way that caused no harm.
Finally, they plugged it in.
Analysts watched their screens. Traders watched their phones. No transactions were made. Not in the first five minutes. Not in the first hour. Meanwhile, a custodian at the largest server farm in the country watched the reading on the thermometer rise. By the time the technicians there got in touch with management, servers were already failing from overheating. Every processor was working at 100% capacity. Thousands of spinning discs, making a sound like screaming.
Catherine was staring absent-minded at the magazine rack when she felt a touch on her arm. “I just have to say,” the stranger said, “I love your hair.”
“Oh,” Catherine brightened immediately. “Thank you so much.”
“It’s got such incredible texture,” the other woman continued. “What’s your secret?”
Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking?”
The other woman cocked her head, smile fading. “What?”
Catherine looked the intruder up and down. “I don’t know you. I’m not telling you anything.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the other said, trying to lay a conciliatory hand on the shoulder of the woman who was flinching away from her. “I think you’re getting carried away. I was just saying,”
“I know what you were saying,” Catherine spat, “and you can forget about it. Nothing. You’re getting nothing out of me.” Then she turned sharply and marched away abandoning her groceries in the checkout line, barely looking over her shoulder to shout out one more time, “Nothing!”
She drove home at reckless speed, left the car running in the driveway and tumbled down the basement stairs to the safe. She pressed her ear to cold metal and heard the rhythmic heartbeat. “Good,” she whispered. “Still there.”
“Thirty-seven?” Conrad asked peeking at the illuminated button. “Do I need to worry about a nosebleed up there?” The lips of the man in the gray suit curled into a tight smile, but he remained silent. Conrad leaned against the wall of the elevator, perching his butt on the railing of the small metal box. “You know, I’ve never been higher than twenty-two.”
A mellow bell chimed with each floor they ascended. After passing half a dozen, Conrad asked, “Do you usually work up here in the rafters?”
“No, not me,” answered the man in the gray suit. “My office is on thirteen.”
“Oh yeah?” Conrad was strangely relieved to learn that this stranger was only five floors more important than him instead of twenty-nine. “Thirteen, pretty unlucky, huh?”
“Perhaps,” the man answered flatly.
“That’s what . . . Marketing?”
It was said so casually that Conrad almost missed the significance. Then he remembered the rumors he had heard the people who worked on the thirteenth floor and what made their projects so special.
“Who . . . who’s on thirty-seven?”
“Not ‘who.’ What.”
One final chime as the elevator stopped. The doors opened to blackness, moist air, and the sound of breathing.
“Remember, you were all like, ‘I don’t know even know what I’m looking at.’ And I told you, ‘It’s a veggie burger.’ But you still didn’t get it. You were just like, ‘Huh…? What…? Where…?’”
“I don’t think that’s how I sounded.”
“And then I had to explain art to you, like, ‘It’s abstract, you know? It’s the essence of a veggie burger.’ And you were super impressed like, ‘I didn’t know you could paint.’ But I knew I could never lie to my best friend, so I just told you, ‘I can’t paint. I commissioned someone I found online.’ And your jaw actually dropped. You said, ‘You mean you paid someone to make…this?’”
“Yeah, I was there for all that. What did he think?”
“So he came inside from running, and he was all sweaty, which was kinda ick, but also totally hot. And he stopped right in front of the painting. I kept it completely casual, like ‘Oh, yeah, that’s your birthday present. Like it?’ He said, ‘Babe. This painting of a veggie burger is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I love you.’ And then”
“That’s enough. I’m assuming kinda ick, but totally hot?”
“Here we are,” Danny announced guiding his stumbling friend up the shallow steps to the door.
Calvin stared vacantly at his own apartment building, then looked back at Danny and hesitated. “Is this the part where . . .”
Danny cocked an eyebrow, curious. “What did you have in mind?”
Blood raced to Calvin’s cheeks.“I didn’t—I mean, I don’t—” he stammered, “well, not that I don’t, I just thought that you—that we—” The longer he went, the brighter his face flushed, and the smirk spreading across Danny’s face certainly wasn’t helping. A finger pressed to Calvin’s lips, halting their speech abruptly.
“I just thought . . .”
“It’s alright,” Danny said gently. “Go inside and get some sleep. Maybe when you’ve figured a few things out, we can try again.”
Calvin watched Danny walk down the steps, onto the sidewalk, away. But before the other man could disappear into the darkness, Calvin called out, “What if I want to figure them out with you?”
Danny turned, studied his friend illuminated in the entryway. Was it naivete or hope that burned in those eyes? Either one could be dangerous, but still Danny found himself smiling. “How about I call you tomorrow?”
It was one of the few days out of the year Pearl ever felt any regret over the life she had chosen. Meanwhile, her wife had been uncharacteristically quiet, unsure of what she could do to comfort Pearl who was pretending everything was fine. Despite the facade, Pearl was so distracted that she almost didn’t hear the doorbell.
Waiting for her on the doorstep was a mirror to the past. The young man looked exactly like she had at that age. That seemed like half a dozen lifetimes ago, before she had any idea who she was. “Todd” she whispered.
“Hey, uh, Pearl.”
It was the slightest moment of hesitation, but it still cut deep, deeper than she wanted to admit even to herself. She felt old habits clamp down on all emotions except anger, so that while she wanted nothing more than to embrace her son, instead, she stood stiffly in the doorway and said. “I thought your mother didn’t want you here.”
A flash of intensity from his dark eyes, a confidence that made her immeasurably proud. Todd strode forward and seized her in a firm embrace. “It’ll always be your day,” he said. “Happy Father’s Day, Pearl.”
Melissa could hardly pick a detail to focus on. Dark purple polish, chipped and sparkling, the tattooed rings stacked on her upper arm, the delicate way she tucked her hair behind her ear, the pale green eyes darting back and forth, or the way a slow smile spread across Alina’s face as she read the back of the DVD case. Then suddenly the eyes turned to her, alight and vibrant.
“Have you heard of this one?” Alina asked, stepping closer. The fragrance of vanilla bean and cloves filled Melissa’s senses. Alina’s body was right next to hers. She couldn’t focus on any details of the movie, just the soft cool touch of Alina’s arm brushing against hers.
“I think you should get it,” Melissa said.
“We could,” she swallowed the lump in her throat, “watch it tonight. At my place?”
For a moment, Alina’s face was perfectly still. Melissa couldn’t feel her heart beating, and she wondered whether time had stopped or whether she had simply died right in that moment. A slow smile. “Sure,” Alina replied casually.
“And maybe we…” Melissa couldn’t find any words to encompass her hope.
Then fingers with chipped polish folded between hers. “Yes.”
Martin drank his morning coffee staring at the calendar where “Last day” was circled in red ink. His watch chimed for 8:00. He rose, rinsed his mug, and went to work.
On the day Martin’s dad retired, the entire office stood to see him off. He handed his boss the office key, exchanging it for a firm handshake and a gold wristwatch. Martin was working there too and felt a swell of pride when the man that the whole office respected looked over his shoulder to give his son a smile and a nod. Ever since, he’d aspired to be the same, earning the respect of both supervisors and peers through the simple act of doing a job well.
“Farewell Martin” was the subject line of the email. There were just five replies, brief messages of congratulations from colleagues he hadn’t even seen in person for over a year. His memory of them had grown as fuzzy and grainy as their webcam footage.
The buzz of an error message. “Your access has been removed.” He read the message over and over until it became a blur of meaningless pixels. Finally, with a sigh, he powered off his computer and retired.
First Tony heard the bushes rustling. Then he heard breathing. “Is someone there?” he asked, beginning to turn around.
“Be cool, man,” came the reply.
“What?” Tony turned around completely to see who was standing in the bushes behind him. The rebuke came immediately. “Are you kidding me with this? Don’t look at me.”
“That’s right, turn around.” And as Tony complied, the stranger added, “Thanks, now just be cool. Thought I’d never get away from the old lady.”
Tony scanned the other park-goers. “Is that her? Tall woman, pink skirt?”
“You know it. And what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I tell ya, man. You think you have a handle on things. You think the world makes sense. Then all of the sudden all the rules change. You gotta figure out your own way.” Tony heard disconcerting noises behind him, along with a heavy sigh. “Been holding this one in all day.”
“Are you…” Confusion, disgust, shock, Tony felt it all. “You’re hiding behind me so you can pee? I’m your pee shield?”
“Potty training,” the toddler said with an embittered laugh. “They may have taken my diapers, but they’ll never make me use the potty.”
He had never understood why people cried at weddings, not until he saw her.
All his life he would remember that moment when his vision blurred. He would try to understand what pieces of himself fell into or out of alignment allowing the emotion to come forth so freely. He would wonder what he really saw in that moment when he suddenly had to blink away tears.
Did he see years of tender smiles and loving glances? Did he see angry comments, painful silences, apologies, reconciliations. Did he see crying babies and sleepless nights, hugs from children, children grown and leaving. Did he see hands interlocked, heads on shoulders, the endless kisses, tears wiped away, a lifetime of companionship.
Could he have seen? Could he have known?
It lasted just an instant, a hazy, warm, love-lit vision.
He saw her, dressed in white, walking toward him while the melody of La Vie en Rose surged around them. Then she was there with him at the altar. He knew exactly why he was there, and exactly what he was promising. Their hands met, gripped each other tightly. Her eyes shone, wet with tears as well.