She is beautiful.
She sits on bench beside me, wrapped up in a scarf and a long coat. She watches the train arrive, then looks to me and says
“This is it.”
“You have a few minutes.” I tell her, taking her hand in mine and squeezing it tight.
She inches closer to me, resting her head on my shoulder. I watch a family walk past; mother, father and two boys, fighting with plastic swords. I look at the platform conductor, who looks back at me, and us, and the same situation he has seen a thousand times.
“You don’t have to go.” I say.
“I do.” She replies, from my shoulder. I can’t see her face; I can only hear the words. I’m already disconnected.
She leans away from me and stands up, pulling her suitcase up with her. She takes a few steps towards the open train doors, pulling me to my feet. I walk with her a few more steps, and when there’s only a few left, I stop.
“You can stay.”
“I can’t. This is something I’ve always wanted, and you want this for me as well. That’s what you said.”
“It’s what I said before.” I take her other hand. “But I don’t want it anymore. Stay.”
She smiles. She’s about to try and reassure me.
“It’s only for a few months. We’ll talk on the phone every day.”
“No we won’t.” I’m not supposed to say this, but I’m going to. “We’re supposed to talk every day, but do you know how long we’ll actually talk every day until? Thursday. Then we wont speak until Sunday. The next week we won’t speak until Thursday again. You’ll meet friends and they’ll keep inviting you out and you’ll keep going. Then one of your friends will introduce you to this guy, and-“
The horn on the train suddenly blares out in the station, making everyone jump. There are screams.
“None of this is going to happen.” She lies. “I have to go.”
She turns around but I grab her arm, pulling her back.
“I’m not going to let you go. You have to stay here with me.” I insist. People are staring.
“Folks the train is leaving.” The platform conductor tells us, sternly. He seems angry.
She tries to pull away from me, but I hold onto her.
“Let me go!” She yells. I pull her against me and hold her to my chest. Everyone around us is silent now, watching. She is writhing in my arms, twisting left and right, pushing against me, but I won’t let her go. Someone blows a whistle. “I HAVE to go.” She whispers to me. “This is your last chance.”
“My last chance?” I ask. Doesn’t she mean her last chance?
She keeps struggling, but I don’t let go, and when the whistle blows again, she suddenly jerks up stronger than before. Still holding her, I stumble back a little, almost falling. Then I hear something inside her, not from her mouth, but inside her. A growling, almost.
I pull back to look at her, frightened, and her eyes are tearful for a second before her face splits in two, right down the middle. Her whole body is ripped into two halves and out of her climbs a great bloody insect, twice her size, until it towers over me with snarling jaws and thrashing claws. People around us scream, and I scream too, before it devours me whole.
With a hiss, the door opens, and I open my eyes, still screaming. I tumble forward out of the pod, falling to the warm tiled floor. I look around, and up at the attendant, giving me a tired smile. She holds out two pills in one hand and a cup of water in the other.
“What the fuck was that?” I shout, as I stand up and rub my head.
“You ran over.” She said, dryly, nodding her head towards the display on the pod. Above the door, in red, flashed the words ‘OVER TIME’. She nudges me with her pill hand, and I hesitantly take the pill, put it in my mouth, and wash it down with the water. “You paid for ten minutes.”
“I… I…” I stand stuttering as she walks to the door, and impatiently holds it open.
“I realise that an unexpected exit from the virtual reality booth can be something of a shock sir, but the document you sign when you come in fully explains that if you attempt to remain in the simulation after the designated exit point, that the program will find a way to eject the user only after multiple prompts.”
“Do you realise how traumatic that is? How…how horrible that is?”
“It’s designed to eject you from the simulation sir.” She answers, with a sigh.
“You know what I was doing in there right?”
“I make a point of not asking or finding out what our customers choose to experience.” She tells me.
“I was reliving the last memory I had with the love of my life!” I explain through gritted teeth. “My last moments of happiness, and then… then this monster… I mean, that’s a real memory! This is…” I shake my head, hands on hips, searching the room with my eyes, looking for a clever and professional way to criticise the service. “…fucked up.”
“It sounds very fucked up sir.” She repeats with a hint of sympathy.
“It was. Very fucked up.”
“Next time I suggest you cooperate with the program to be able to fully enjoy your experience.” She tells me with a weak smile, and gently but insistently leads me out of the room.
I think about posting some sort of official complaint, but there are a lot of people in the waiting room outside, and I think they probably all heard me screaming a second ago, so I decide to give it a pass. I head outside onto the crowded street, and cross the street to the coffee shop. Maybe next time I’ll do Ancient Rome, or something else less stressful.