Donna bakes fresh biscuits in the kitchen. The setting summer sun shoots rays of light through the west side windows. The steaming baked goods seep into my nostrils and remind me of my home as a young girl. I’ll miss these moments.
“You must really love him to run away with him like this, Kate,” Donna assures me as she voluntarily butters my fresh biscuit and gently places it back onto my plate.
“Yes ma’am I do. But either way it will be a great opportunity for both of us,” I reply and thank her for the heavenly bread. She has been nothing but kind to me since her son and I agreed to marry earlier this year.
“You two are gonna make our tiny town proud! I’m so excited for y’all,” Donna says as Jared walks into the small kitchen.
“Sorry Kate but you’ll have to pack it up and eat it on the way or we’ll be late for our flight,” Jared instructs me and turns to say goodbye to his mother. His new boots shine in the kitchen light to match his pastel pearl snap shirt.
Donna’s eyes swell up with tears. She hugs both of us tightly and reminds us to update her every step of the way.
We step outside holding hands. Jared places his hat firmly on his head and leads me to his muddy Ford.
“That’s a nice dress,” he tells me, smiling.
“Thanks,” I blush.
Dusk creeps in gracefully over the horizon. Jared tries to find a functioning radio station, but all he can seem to muster up is static.
“Hey, Kate, look at that star on the left up there.”
“It’s so bright. Probably a planet or something.”
As we discuss the object, it seems to move towards us.
“It has to be a plane. It’s getting closer,” Jared comments.
It grows in size and the brightness becomes too much for Jared. He swerves into the ditch.
I hear myself scream.
All I see is white light. My hand in front of me is invisible. My ears are ringing and Jared is gone. Where am I?
I shut my eyes but cannot escape the blinding light showering over me.
“Jared!” I call out for my fiancé and plead for him to come to me. The light is just too bright.
And now it’s gone away. All is black, all is silent.
I wake up lying on a cold steel table. My dress has been replaced with a hospital gown. I look down and see my pale toes wiggling under a dim light overhead. Electrodes stick to my damp forehead.
“Sorry we had to rip you from that one so soon, Kate. The maintenance men are doing…maintenance stuff. Didn’t you get the email?”
“Oh, I forgot, James. That’s too bad. I was in a good place today.”
James nods his head. He understands, although he doesn’t approve of my destructive habit. However, it’s his job to keep me coming back.
I slowly roll off the table and walk to the women’s locker room. It’s empty today aside from me. Maybe everyone else paid attention to the email to stay away. Or maybe everyone else has a life outside of this place.
Lately, it’s been pretty quiet anyway. The humanitarians have been causing too much havoc for these havens. Well, it’s a haven to me. It baffles and angers me that others label it as an addictive substance. No harm comes to my body or anyone else’s, so what’s the problem?
I take the subway home, barely noticing the thousands of faces that pass by me. The walk home from the substation is spent staring at the cement sidewalk.
Back at home, my bed awaits me. My answering machine plays three messages from Dr. Bynin. She thinks she knows what’s best for me. I think she only wants my money for the sessions we spent pointlessly trekking through my “traumatic” childhood, as she describes it.
I ignore her and go straight to bed. God knows I will likely be running back into her arms when they shut down the simulation center again.
I lay down in my soft, empty bed and try with every ounce of brainpower to daydream and drift into a world of fantasy that I’ve created. I can’t do it. It never works. I desperately need that cold table, wires dangling from my head, and James in the corner preparing a new world for me to explore. It’s so real, stronger than dreams. I can actually feel physical objects and choose my own fate within the false realities. I have none of that here in bed, so I have nothing.
I’m a middle-aged reject without a job, husband, or friends to keep me from wanting a virtual reality. What else do I have to live for but those moments of living in a perfect world controlled by me?
The anxiety is eating away my brain cells. I can wait no longer. I run out of the cluttered apartment and down to the substation. It takes so long to get me there. Please go faster, underground train.
We arrive at the cut off and I sprint to the center. It’s 11 p.m. and the doors are locked. The lights inside have all gone dark. My heart drops into my stomach and I feel nauseous.Tears pour down my face as I lean against the locked door and slide down until I’m sitting on the rough concrete.
“Kate, why don’t you go see the doctor again?” I turn to see James exiting the center.
“Oh good, James! Please let me inside!”
“It’s over. They shut us down and took every simulation pod. I’m so sorry.”
James walks off quietly with his hands in his pockets. My world is shattered. What will I do? I just want to lay here on this dirty sidewalk and dissolve into nothing.
Through blurry tears I see a small car pull up in front of me. James rolls down his window and tells me he has an idea. I get into the car without a thought. I hope that he is taking me to another center. Maybe he knows of an underground simulation business.
In the car, I remain silent. Embarrassment at my rugged appearance starts to creep in as I settle down. I should have known that James wouldn’t let me down.
We pull up to an old warehouse lacking any signs of life. James turns to me and offers his hand – “Trust me.”
I smile and exit the car. James leads me to the door of the warehouse. A woman cracks open the door and asks for us to identify ourselves. James says his name and that he brought a friend. Dr. Bynin walks out looking pleased to see me.
“No. James, why would you bring me to her? I thought you wanted to help me?” I start to cry and place my hands over my face.
“I am helping you. Trust me, Kate.” James hugs me and we follow Dr. Bynin into the warehouse. Do I have a choice? Oh my goodness, I hate this.
Inside, the large building is much more inviting. The vast space is broken off into individual rooms and spaces by pale green dividers. At every corner a friendly face peaks up and smiles. Each person seems content – not a general content, but a content that comes after being afraid of a monster in the dark only to find out that it’s an innocent cat.
“How about some dinner?” Dr. Bynin asks as as she leads us through the maze to a quiet cafeteria.
“I’ll stay with you for a while.” James assures me. I’m so relieved that he is at my side. My nerves are overwhelming me and I’d hate to be alone.
We sit at an empty booth and a young lady dressed in an apron and hairnet brings us steaming tea. She flashes a house-warming smile.
James talks with me openly. His eyes are the deepest blue, his upper arms are covered in tribal tattoos, and he has a small scar on his chin. How have I never noticed any of this in the last five years I’ve known him? He is surprised to know that I grew up down the street from where he lives now.
Shame begins to stir up inside of me as I recall the last few years of having no other conversations with this sweet young man other than: ‘Hey how are you?’ ‘Fine, thank you, and yourself?’ ‘Fine.’
Through conversation, my anxiety calms down a bit. Behind the serving counter I can see the worker baking in the kitchen. She pulls warm biscuits out of the stove. She then brings the warm baked goods to our booth.
Happiness is not within me now, but the agony has departed for the most part. I feel calm. think I will be okay.