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Days Like These

Erica L. Satifka's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Ideomancer, and the political SF anthology Strange Bedfellows, as well as previously in Daily Science Fiction. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Rob and too many cats. Visit her online at ericasatifka.com.

On days like these, when the boredom reaches down Park's throat like a debutante's finger, it's all he can do not to hop on his board and hoist a hearty double-middle-finger salute to this crummy slice of consensus reality called Home Sweet Home. He'd do it too, if he knew the subroutines wouldn't reel him in, fish-flopping on the macadam.
No way in hell am I going through that again, he thinks, shuddering.
He'll give the neighborhood this much: it always knows who you want to talk to, which is why his front yard now directly abuts the front yard of his best pal Lynka. He feels the tiny frisson of energy that sparks when you walk into another person's domain, and slouches down next to her. Lynka's blonde hair reeks of vodka and sewage; it's a flaw in the program. Park doesn't mind it anymore, because it reminds him of her.
Together, they wait on Lynka's spacious porch for the familiar melody of the Jolli-Tyme van.
"You know, you don't smell that bad today."
Lynka sniffs. "Took them long enough. We put in that service call, like, six months ago."
Park plucks a blade of grass, rolls it between his palms. "Van's late."
"Maybe there won't be any more van. Maybe the neighborhood ate it." She gazes off into the distance, which ends roughly thirty feet away. "It eats everything else."
She doesn't have to spell that out for Park.
Just now, Park listens for the jingle-jangle of the van. You hear it before you see it, owing to various irregularities in the program, and for the five minutes it takes the van to enter Home Sweet Home, he and Lynka lick their lips, fidget their fingers. Park's toes curl within his Nikes. They need a fix, and they need it bad.
And here it comes, barreling down the cul-de-sac. And there goes Lynka, stinky hair flapping behind her like a ruined flag, always the first to step into the van's maw.
Nobody knows who really drives the van, or how it even manages to break the firewall set up by the Simulation-Owners' Association. Today the driver is represented by a piece of stock photography, a smiling brunette woman frozen in time, Bluetooth clamped to her jaw.
He taps on the window, but the piece of stock photography doesn't budge.
Lynka pops her head out. "Are you coming? You better get here before the rush."
Park needs the van. Not as much as Lynka, but then again, she's been here longer. How much longer? He doesn't want to know.
He goes to the back, jumps inside, puts his back to the wall, slides the pipe in his mouth. Before the door slams shut, he catches a glimpse of the sad sacks still out there in the cul-de-sac, denied their escape hatch for the day. Suckers.
When he's under the influence of the van, Park feels himself splintered. In one way, he's aware of the tube as it grinds against the walls of his esophagus, every uncomfortable inch of it. When he goes home after his time in van-space, he coughs out blood, so he knows it's not pleasant. But the bulk of his mind is shunted into a new reality, a world where time halts and you're treated to a rush of colors, sounds, and neurotransmitters which are a feast for the soul. You can't control the experience, but you don't want to. It's completely dialed in, especially for you.
There are six spots on the daily tour, and as Park waits for the chemicals to trickle down the tube and flood his fake body with real enjoyment, he briefly touches minds with Lynka and the others. There's a lot of bleed-through here, and he feels his simulated body melt into the mercury-like substrate that constitutes the beginning stages of van-space.
He doesn't feel his real body, the one in the refrigerator. Not even a little.
The only sucky thing about getting high in the Jolli-Tyme van is that before you can trip, you have to talk to something the simulation coughs up, a deep-voiced lady dressed in blue. Park and Lynka call her the Technician. She never looks at you directly. Park isn't even sure what her face looks like. Just that she's a girl, and she wears blue, and if she likes you then you'll have a good trip, and sucks to be you if she doesn't.
She likes Park. She and Park are tight.
"And how are you doing today?"
Park thinks. "Not good."
The Technician laughs, which is weird, but he's given up trying to gauge her reactions to things. "What could we be doing better?"
"I guess if maybe I had some different books to read. Or a pet. What kind of a loser neighborhood is this where we can't have a pet?"
"I'm afraid that having a pet would go against the rules of your Simulation-Owners' Association."
Screw them, Park thinks. He can feel Lynka drifting close to him, embroiled in a conversation with another instance of the Technician. "Okay. But the books, at least?"
"I'll see what I can do. So, how's your father?"
Park shrugs. "Same. Still won't let me move out on my own."
"The world can be a scary place for a young man like yourself." Park doesn't know if she means the world of Home Sweet Home, or the world outside. The Earth ravaged by climate change and acts of mob violence so bad that Park's parents had no choice but to contact a disrealtor and sign away Park's future. And their own, Park guesses.
"Is it any scarier than being a piece of programming in a tin can?"
The Technician sighs. "Please don't get excited."
Park can never figure out what the Technician's role here is. Is she his therapist? His programmer? His friend? He and Lynka never discuss their simultaneous conversations with the Technician. "I'm not. Can I drift, now?"
She smiles. "Okay." She exits the ghost of a room and lets the show begin, the swirl of colors and sounds that remind Park of what happened when he used to take too much cough syrup and crank up the drone metal. It's not a bad way to kill the boredom for a few hours. However long they really are.
Park's mother adjusted to life in the neighborhood the way eyes adjust to the dark. One day Park came home to find her lovingly subsumed in the subroutines, a mom.exe with no arms to hold him.
But a man of eighteen plus whatever doesn't need hugs as much as a grown man, and his father had never recovered. Dad couldn't leave Home Sweet Home now, not with his wife's ghost haunting every mailbox, gutter, and microwave oven in the cul-de-sac. Dad's refusal to leave affects Park in a very personal way.
Because you have to be put back into a body when you leave Home Sweet Home. And Park's dad won't give up the keys.
When a bleary-eyed Park comes in with static in his hair, his old man doesn't even look up from where he's crouched against the wainscoting. Dad thinks that if he tries hard enough, he can get into the program, same as Mom. It's Park's job to make sure that doesn't happen. "Hey!"
Dad looks up. "Go to your room."
Park sighs in relief. Good. Still here.
Home Sweet Home's rendition of a teenage boy's room is heavy on Playboy and car posters, and light on anything that Park would have wanted. They don't even drive on Earth anymore, Park thinks. And he's never seen a real babe as luscious as these ones, not since the global food shortages.
A lot could have happened in however many real years he's been trapped here. By now it could even be safe out there. But he'll never know, not unless he gets his dad to turn over Park's right to inhabit his own body.
Park scans his bookshelves. There are the usual rows of neatly bagged Marvel comics and colorful manga, but a dusty old hardback is crammed in there too.
He pulls it out. War and Peace. Not something Park would ordinarily read, but he opens it hungrily, and is asleep before he hits page five.
Next day. 7:30. Almost time for Jolli-Tyme. Lynka reminds Park of a cartoon dog with a fork in one hand and a knife in the other. He can almost taste her saliva in his mouth, bleed-through from the program.
When the van stops and the hatch opens, she dashes forward, eager as ever to put the tube in her mouth and her back to the wall. Park hangs back, suddenly afraid.
"Why are you just standing there? Come on!" She waves her hand.
"Something's wrong."
Lynka shrugs. "Suit yourself."
Park walks around to the front. Today the driver's a humanoid bear with a friendly smile on its fuzzy face. Slowly, the unsatisfied members of the Simulation-Owners' Association are creeping out like ants after a rainstorm. He won't be able to get his fix if he doesn't get in the van right now.
But he can't. Something feels off. Park sniffs the simulated air again and winces.
"Lynka?" He goes around to the back of the van. "Lynka?"
She, and four others, are already deep in the tubes, eyes turned to the ceiling, hands splayed out behind them feeling the inner wall of the van. An old woman with hair like a hornets' nest pushes past Park like he's not even there and takes the last spot. He lets her.
Park leans against the back of the van and just watches for once. Mostly he watches Lynka, having never seen her go under the tube when he himself is stone cold sober. He hasn't noticed it before, but her gums are bloody, like two slabs of bad meat. Her eyes are two punched-out clocks. The woman with the hornets' nest for hair sighs, and the back door of the van slides shut, and then it's Park all alone. Again.
Another day. Same Park. He doubts less now, as the hunger gnaws at him. He enters the van and jams the tube down his throat, feeling like a billion bucks.
The Technician's bare-bones office sketches itself out before Park. He can feel the enlightening playground of van-space straining behind the bars of the dull façade like it can't wait to get out.
Park slouches in the Technician's crappy chair. "Who are you, anyway? Do you work for the disrealtor?"
"I'm whoever you want me to be, Park."
He flips the bird. "Whatever. Anyway, if you work for them can you tell me how much longer it's gonna be? I don't care if Earth sucks. I don't want to be here anymore."
"But you signed a contract."
"That was them." The parental units.
She tosses her head, her pixels fracturing as she does, so that she's fuzzy in areas, a poor resolution. "Try to make the best of things. You've got it better in here than they do out there, trust me."
"I doubt that very much."
"You do."
He changes tactics. "So, my body. Are you sure it's still there? I'm pretty sure that you had to protect it as part of the contract." It was only a hundred and twenty pounds of teenage flesh, but he wants it back, anyway.
"Refrigeration is an inexact science." The Technician smiles.
Sometimes Park wonders if this whole "rebel teenager with a genuine cause" thing is a sham. This seems especially true when he interacts with the processing parental unit known as Dad. What else could explain the way he feels driven to protect the unit, the way he sometimes feels compelled to tousle Dad's hair, teach him to fish, et cetera and so forth?
Could it only be because Park père is so pathetic, so un-dad-like? Here he is, same faded "Best of the West" rodeo T-shirt that he's worn every day since Mom disappeared into the digital aether. Park doesn't care that it's only a program, that his father never actually owned a shirt like that, that the Parks weren't the kind of people who'd be caught dead at an event like that.
Sometimes, Park dreams of a city with massive bridges reaching to the poisoned sky.
And yet, here in the simulated reality of Home Sweet Home, Dad wears one, just like Park puts up posters of Ferraris. Dad tips his bottle of simulated booze (Park's tried the stuff; it tastes a little like Worcestershire sauce and doesn't even get you a fraction buzzed) into his mouth, but most of it lands on the curious shirt.
"Dad. Dad."
The man in the rodeo shirt looks up, eyes big in his specs, words slurred but it's not from the faux booze. "Wussat?"
"I need to borrow the car."
Dad thinks the code at Park. "Jus' don't wreck it."
But that's exactly what Park's going to do.
When he and Lynka aren't tripping in the Jolli-Tyme van or sloppily making out, they spend most of their time exploring the perimeter of Home Sweet Home. The simulation is surrounded by an ocean of dead land crisscrossed with highways. Park seems to remember from history class that real subdivisions of the twentieth century looked a lot like this.
How many times has he done this drive? He can't recall, any more than he can recall his precise age or his true relationship with the man who lives in his house or the identity of the van driver. More than two dozen, less than five thousand, roughly.
The boundary shimmers, a soap bubble. Park slams the brakes the instant he sees it, causing the car to whine and fishtail on the false grass. It should leave a mark, but it doesn't.
Park hunts in the shrubs for a rock, which he finds, because just as the neighborhood takes, so does it give. He drops the rock onto the accelerator and the car speeds past him, bursting the bubble, going into the distance beyond that Park can't reach. He wonders if the cars have stacked up beyond the gate in a digital automotive Stonehenge, or if they simply disappear, reduced to dead, dumb information.
He directs himself back into his front yard and collapses onto the lush green carpet, exhausted. These are your salad days, he thinks.
As Park sits at the kitchen table with a bowl of Lucky Charms he thinks back to the day when all this went down. When he and his mother and father, or he and his two children, or he and his husband and some woman they found on the street, went to the disrealtor and signed up to be crammed into a pocket drive.
"There's no crime in the simulation," the disrealtor had said, giving them a knowing glance, as if to say those people. Park knew what she meant, and approved. "Everything is included: your food, your water, your entertainment."
"You still have to eat?" Park had said.
"Not very much. Just to keep you in the habit. For when you get out."
Everyone on Earth was poor now, but some were poorer than others, and that wasn't the kind of poor the Parks were. Either he or his father or his cousin or his fairy godmother had signed the paperwork, and Park's body was stacked with over a thousand others in a warehouse for the powerful and desperate. If Park thinks really hard, he can almost see the shape of his world, feel the other digitized humans in the other neighborhoods.
He can't feel his body.
Park dumps most of the cereal into the sink, because it doesn't matter, and goes outside just in time to catch the van.
It's full already, so instead he goes to the cab. Today's driver is a collection of writhing hands. Park looks away, disgusted.
This time, though, it's Lynka who comes up front to check on Park. "Here," she says, handing him her tube. "You go."
He doesn't want to. But yet he does.
"Haven't seen you in a little while," says the Technician.
"I haven't felt like coming."
She clucks her tongue. "You should really come every day. It's good for you."
Park huffs and slides further down into the large leather chair that's materialized underneath him. "He never comes. My 'father'." Park makes a set of air quotes, feeling like the bored teenager he's pretty sure he's not.
"Oh, so you've figured that out, have you?"
"I guess I always kind of knew." Park thinks back to the sad old man in the rodeo shirt, searching for his wife in patterned wallpaper. "Were they married, at least?"
"He thought they were. That's what matters."
No, it damn well is not what matters, Park thinks, bitterly. "Just give me the light show."
"Not at this time."
"Then let me go. For real. I have to make sure he's okay." The man in the rodeo shirt isn't his father, but even so he holds the keys to Park's body, and for some reason Park still cares about the guy.
But she just sits there with that grin on her face, and her eyes that never look at you straight on (diffused, as they are, among six or maybe hundreds of patients/clients/owners/prisoners simultaneously), and Park can't stand it anymore, he launches himself from the chair and at the Technician's face, hands full of her candy-floss hair, slamming her back into the walls of the barely-a-room.
He expects sirens, warning bells. Maybe a voice telling him he's beat the system. Perhaps he pictured the Technician's head opening to reveal a robotic interior, or that she'll be him. But instead she's just dead.
Distantly, he hears the Jolli-Tyme jingle, and then the rough sensation of the tube sliding out of his mouth as Lynka pulls him from the apparatus, saves him. Park gets a whiff of her hair and gags.
"I think you had a seizure," she says. "Are you okay?"
It's a stupid question even if she doesn't know it's stupid. Park looks back at the van. Surely his neighbors know what he's done. She was just a piece of code, but then again, so is he. And Lynka. And "Dad."
"Park." Lynka shakes him a little. "Wake up."
But there's no waking up from this, Park knows. No joyous reunion with his body, with his old life. No in-the-flesh Technician waking him up to tell him what he's missed during the last twenty, or two hundred, or two thousand years.
Earth could be burned to a cinder, or be elevated to a paradise. His body is almost certainly gone, and whoever or whatever lives outside now has no reason to plug in the time capsule that is Home Sweet Home. Someday, if these distant beings become curious about life in the twenty-first century, they might do that, if they can find technology compatible with this particular sardine can world. Park doesn't think they will.
The Simulation-Owners' Association contracts had planned for many things, but they couldn't plan for obsolescence.
Park says, "I need to go home." And because this is Home Sweet Home, he says it and then he's there.
The man who could have been Park's father isn't home when Park steps across the threshold, though there's a stained T-shirt with "Best of the West" printed on it strewn across the pointless hearth. Park goes into his bedroom, pulls out the incongruous copy of War and Peace, and tries to go to sleep.
It's too loud to sleep, though, and he tosses against the pillow like he's having a fit. Park's not sure if it's the woman he's killed or the woman who probably wasn't his mom, but there are voices in the air, thick as chalk dust.
He presses his face against the wall and breathes in.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 4th, 2014

Author Comments

The last neighborhood I lived in had a meth problem. Every evening around nine, rain or shine, an unmarked "ice cream truck" would make the rounds. I never saw any kids there, just shifty teens and adults looking to score. I combined the image of a van peddling some mysterious substance with a concept of a virtual suburban prison for the rich, and the story was born.

- Erica L. Satifka
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