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A La Carte

Joy Kennedy-O'Neill lives on the Texas Gulf coast and teaches English for Brazosport College, where her husband K.S. O'Neill (also a DSF contributor) teaches math. Joy's stories have been published in Nature, New Flash Fiction Review, Flash Fiction Online, the Cimarron Review, and Strange Horizons, among others. More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com.
I usually don't hug my ex-husband's girlfriends, but she's sobbing in the restaurant's bathroom, screaming "ghost babies" and "children are burning!"
A tumble of ladies encircle us. And Stephanie, this woman-child he's dating, with honey-blond braids and wide blue eyes says, "Look!" She points toward the restaurant's front door. "Children are trapped in the doorway. Burning! They're wearing old-timey clothes--"
"Oh sweetie," one lady says reassuringly. "It's an illusion. Are you a tax Opt-Out?"
Stephanie sniffs and nods.
I feel their sympathies change. "New upgrade." The woman taps the side of her temple.
"Oh, it must be a new projection only you're seeing," I tell Stephanie. "Doors have to exit outward. OSHA building codes. But I guess you'd call that government interference? So it's showing you what can happen--"
"THAT kind of regulation is OK!" Stephanie says.
"Can't pick and choose," a women tsssks. She gathers her purse and leaves.
"I'd heard the new update was going to be controversial," I tell Stephanie.
"You really didn't see anything?"
"No. I don't opt out of taxes." I'm trying not to sound smug. She smells like coconut oil and is beautiful, and I really want to kill my ex-husband and his whole "Let's-stay-friends" thing.
"I'll call Doug and see what's keeping him." I step outside the restaurant and ring him.
"Heya. What'cha think of Stephanie? Ordered yet?"
His voice is cheerful and smooth in that way I loved when we were newly-married, and loathed when we were near-divorced.
"She's curled up in the bathroom, crying."
"What? What'd you say to her?"
"Nothing! Her overlay just showed her some scary stuff."
"OK, I'm almost there."
I know he's late because he opts out of local taxes. His car's restricted and probably bouncing along the old rutted 288 that was never repaired after Flyway 12 opened. He can't get a library card. He was always cheap. Never political. But this new girlfriend sobbing in the bathroom is political, and I bet you money she's a vegan and won't order anything they have here.
See, I opt in for ALL taxes. Rewarded for it too. My overlay heightens sunsets and sunrises, and on Monet's birthday they look like watercolors. I can literally see the world in rose-tint, if I want. I get all the entertainment channels, plus the option of turning off optical enhancements.
I guide Stephanie to our table as she wipes her eyes. She says the ghost-children aren't there now; it was just when she opened the door.
"Welcome!" the server-bot chirps. "Please scan."
We look into the table's eye-reader and it blips, accessing our tax records and activism charts. My water comes immediately -- I'm pro-fluoridation -- but Stephanie gets nothing.
"So, you're an Opt-Out? What taxes DO you pay?" I ask.
"Well, I don't support military spending," she says. "But I donate to local schools and the arts and--"
The restaurant's door opens and I nearly drop my glass. My ex-husband has lost about thirty pounds and looks ten years younger. He's grown a beard. Outdoorsy.
He walks over and hugs her. "What happened?"
Part of me twists inside.
"It was horrible!," Stephanie says. "Like when we went to the anti-vaccination rally and those people from the CDC gave us free yoga mats to carry, and then everyone's overlay turned them into sick babies."
She looks at me. "It was just like we were holding dead babies."
"This is why we wanted to meet up," Doug says. "These overlays are getting out of control. I wanted to let you know we're moving. Off the grid."
He's moving? My brain feels like it's moving slowly. "Both? Moving together?"
"We'd get married but the license fee goes to fund domestic violence prevention," he says. "I mean, it's a good cause, but I can't handle the irony."
Stephanie nods. "And love is free, right?"
I look at the both of them, somewhat flabbergasted. "So, you just wanted to say goodbye?"
"And meet you. I've heard so much about you." Stephanie smiles sweetly.
Divorce is strange, I think.
I try to gather my senses and look poised. "OK. So you're actually moving to a commune?"
"Yeah. In Montana," Doug says. "I can't handle these crazy Google Doodles in my eyes anymore."
"That's not what overlays are," I say.
But I don't tell him I really enjoyed Flannery O'Conner's birthday yesterday with a 3D peacock strutting around my front yard and the free Wise Blood I read as my car took me to work, driving Flyway 12.
"Ready to order?" the server-bot asks.
Stephanie wipes her eyes again. "Cobb salad."
The bot pings unhappily. She must be anti-GMO. "Another choice?"
"No, I'm not really hungry."
Doug squeezes her shoulder. "It's okay. My god, it's all out of control! Our kids aren't going to have overlays."
Kids? I visualize a blond child feeding goats on a commune, with daisies in her hair. I feel sick.
"But, all of city-services is through overlay," I say. "And email, texts, hospital IDs, bank accounts." I'm blathering. "How will you buy food? Start your car? You'll be like a homeless person! And no news and movies? 3D wherever you are?"
"Real life is free," Stephanie says. "Right?"
Oh my gosh, she's just so precious. I rub my forehead. "Can't you just remove your tech?"
"And get the migraines?" Doug says. "Plus still deal with taxes? No thanks. Think about it. You're giving twenty, maybe thirty percent of your money to the government? You--"
"Sssh." Stephanie puts her hand on his knee. "Don't get started."
Dang, I sort of like her.
"We should go," he says.
I don't argue. "Thanks for letting me know," I try to say smoothly. "Good luck."
"Nice meeting you," Stephanie says. "Sorry I got so upset earlier."
She hugs me. Doug does too. "See ya." He looks like he wants to say more, but doesn't.
Stephanie covers her eyes as he opens the restaurant's door for her, its red "exit" sign flashing. I guess it would be disturbing to see some of the overlays I've heard about. I'm glad I don't have to worry about them.
"Hi there! Ready to order?" the bot chirps again.
"Love is free," I laugh. Then I order the cobb salad. For a minute I wonder what it would be like to go with them. Or to choose my battles.
Doug, cheap as he was, always said I was blithely unaware of costs.
But I only wonder for a minute, because the bot brings me a complimentary key-lime pie, and it's cold and sweet and delicious. Not at all like the tart taste of loneliness and longing. No, really. It's good. And it's got real damn cream because I support the dairy farmers' subsidies.
You get what you pay for, right?
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 1st, 2019


This story's idea came to me during tax season, when I imagined a world where we could pick and chose our services. What could go wrong?

- Joy Kennedy-O'Neill
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