This story is by Desiree McCullough and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Downloading ‘Grocery Store’ theme and settings,” a digitized voice announced.
High and low mechanical sounds echoed in the 12 foot by 24 foot silver plated room. Walls came down from the ceiling. Sleek check-out counters and aisles sprouted from the movable floor. The digital screens surrounding the room flickered with advertisements for produce on sale and reminders to bring reusable bags.
An automated army of workers filled the room and placed groceries on the shelves, boxed dinners in freezers, and produce in refrigerated cases. The smell of wet cardboard came and went with the dedicated stockers in less than five minutes.
Felix had no idea of the creation that he was about to interact with. His hyperbaric chamber was in one corner of the room, but the frosted glass obscured his view. He really didn’t mind this new arrangement. His old cell with that scum, Clay, and the corrupt guards were enough to persuade him to volunteer in the behavioral adaptations unit. Most of the inmates were afraid or hostile to anything the prison’s administration brought down to “help” them adjust on the outside. There were the rumors that you would come out more screwed up than when you came in.
This was his second stint in prison, and the third birthday of Angel’s that he missed. He was up for anything.
“Good morning, Felix. This is Dr. Murray. Today you will be at the grocery store where you will shop for some items. Your shopping list is in your pocket. Nothing to it. When the announcement is given that the simulation is over, please return to your chamber,” the voice piped from a speaker above Felix’s head.
“Okay,” Felix replied.
This is easy. Shopping for stuff. No problem.
And, it really was easy. After the glass door of his chamber swooshed open, Felix took his time exploring the aisles of the mini-grocery store in awe of how real it looked. The food was real, not empty boxes or plastic produce.
Remembering he was on a mission, he unfolded the list from his pocket. He expected a typed font, but to his surprise, it was a handwritten list on a sheet that came from those pads charities would send you in the mail to guilt you into making a donation. A parade of animals bordered the bottom. Angel was crazy about animals. The reminder made Felix’s mouth form into the smallest side smile as he scanned the aisles for sugar.
After finding his items and checking out with an overly friendly robot cashier, Felix heard a voice cackle out of a speaker, “Felix, please report to the manager.”
Before he could turn around, a robot with “Manager” digitally printed on its chest handed him another list.
Okay, I can do this too.
Felix turned around remembering the items he bought from his first list, but they were gone. The cashier now looked like she was bored as she rolled her eyes at Felix and picked at her mechanical fingers.
This shopping trip wasn’t as pleasant. He couldn’t find a quarter of the items on this list. The easygoing instrumental music that previously played through the store was now skipping. The cashier nonchalantly delivered the news that his card was declined. She yelled at him to put back half of his items.
Keep your cool, Felix.
After returning the groceries, Felix got an announcement to report to the manager again. Instead of receiving a list, the robot gave him a vest and told him to start stocking from the loaded u-boats toward the back of the store. Just as Felix got his first box of canned soup open, the room swarmed full of robot customers. Young and old…the sudden crowd startled him.
Just do your job, Felix. This is life.
Babies crying. Couples laughing. People talking about how times are changing. Even though Felix knew this was fake, he was having a hard time fighting the urge to absorb the spell of small talk.
The sound of breaking glass broke Felix’s trance. An immediate request for his attention to the clean-up on aisle three was called out over the speaker system.
Felix didn’t know what made him assume cleaning supplies and a trash can would be waiting on him, but of course, they were.
The rest of his time was spent assisting a variety of customers, running the register, and corralling shopping carts that were abandoned around the store.
“Felix, please report back to your chamber. Have a good night,” Dr. Murray’s voice summoned over the speaker system.
Finally. Time to rest. A good day. A stressful day but a good day. I can do this.
Felix’s eyes closed as the glass door shut around him.
Over many days Felix engaged in a variety of settings and scenarios such as a park with a moms’ group accompanied with an army of toddlers, a department store at Christmastime, a subway station with a saxophone player, a college classroom that included a heated debate between the professor and an obnoxious student, a crowded sports bar with a group celebrating someone’s retirement party, and a sketchy car dealership where a car was actually stolen.
All different places and people. Always something that reminded him of Angel.
“Downloading ‘Felix Everson Case File #322125’ theme and settings,” the robotic voice dispatched.
Stucco walls dropped down from the ceiling clad with cheaply framed bare landscapes. After the maroon flat carpet unraveled, a lumpy bed absent of sheets ascended from an opening along with a chipped particle board dresser with mismatched brass drawer handles and a small pedestal table accompanied by two stained and over-pilled navy chairs. The rear of the room transformed into a bare-boned kitchen-bathroom area with just enough counter space to set a toothbrush or chop a carrot.
Three robots came in tossing random toiletries, clothing, and receipts to last a lifetime around the small studio apartment. One robot reduced in size and transformed into a little girl playing on the floor with zoo animals while the other two robots exited the room.
“Good morning, Felix. This setting will feel familiar to you. Please engage the best you can and follow any instructions through today’s scenarios. You are doing great,” Dr. Murray uttered with little emotion.
Even before the glass door fully opened, Felix knew he didn’t want to be there. His breathing quickened. His eyes panned over the pitiful scene that was a reminder of how chaotic his life was before prison.
What–WHO–is that? NO!
Felix’s eyes strained and refocused on the sight of who could only be Angel lost in a gleeful world as a zookeeper.
“A-A-Angel girl?” Felix murmured as a flow of tears and snot erupted from his face. He started to feel dizzy as he inched his way over to her.
“You can do this, Felix. You have been equipped to handle this,” Dr. Murray’s voice interrupted the scene.
“Hi, Daddy. Play with me,” Angel lightly commanded with a wide grin that made Felix instantly sit down.
Over what seemed like hours, Felix relished in Angel’s made-up stories and silly animal names. Felix very much knew in his head that this–his old apartment and the props–were all fake and that included Angel, but he decided to let the girl’s words and mannerisms become incantations into the depths of his heart.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The door swung open to reveal his two least favorite people. He should have known it would come to this.
“Angel, it’s time to go…now!” Ann, his ex-girlfriend, cackled out.
Angel took her time to scoop up her animals making sure she didn’t forget one.
“Let’s GO!” Ronnie, Ann’s sometimes boyfriend, bellowed as he grabbed Angel by the arm and kicked the plastic animals away.
Felix jumped up, pulled Angel away, and pushed Ronnie against the wall. He locked in to the digitized eyes of Ronnie…ROBOT Ronnie.
This is not real. They’re getting to my emotions. This is not real. I’m here because I almost killed the real Ronnie. This is not real. I can finish this and make it out. Better. In the REAL world. This is not real.
Felix backed away.
“That’s what I thought, fool!” blared Ronnie with a short laugh. The three robots scooted out of the room into a bright light that was probably meant to be sunshine.
The door shut. Felix stood frozen not knowing if he should be proud of himself for not striking Robot Ronnie or weak for reminiscing with Robot Angel.
“Good job, Felix. This is a familiar and pivotal scene in your life,” Dr. Murray assured him.
Felix let in a confident gulp of air.
“Now, let’s do it again,” Dr. Murray declared.
No, no, no—NO!
Immediately, Robot Angel entered with a tablet, sat on the bed, and stared at the screen beaming cartoon colors onto her face. Robots Ronnie and Ann marched in and began rummaging through Felix’s fake belongings.
“Okay, let’s begin,” proclaimed Dr. Murray.