Today’s short story comes from guest author Paul Corbett.
I slide into an empty four-seater and sneak a peek at my reflection in the window. My black skirt is tight but knee-length professional. The slightly open white blouse is a classic; fabric just thin enough to offer a peak of purple lace bra. And who could resist the pony-tail and thin-rimmed glasses à la sexy librarian. This is the look.
They had been big on the look at orientation.
‘The bottom line,’ Dave the trainer had told us, ‘is sex sells’.
Dave with his Californian tan, pacing up and down the stage, chest puffed out like an alpha ape.
‘But you can’t take it too far. You don’t wanna look like a whore.’
Dave had stopped and looked down at his new recruits, nine wide-eyed 20-somethings sitting in enraptured silence.
‘Well, not a cheap whore anyways.’
We all laughed at that, the girls as much as the guys. From the thousands of applicants, we were the select few chosen to work as Market Champions for VitaCare, global leaders in nutritional solutions. We would have laughed at anything.
The carriage is empty but for an exhausted-looking man in a security guard’s uniform and a comatose figure lying with his back to me across a few seats up the opposite end. This could have been me a few months ago, passed out on the first morning train after a big night out. But things have changed. Today I have a job. Today I’m a responsible adult who gets a good night’s sleep and wakes up at ridiculous o’clock to get the look just right.
I take my device out of my black leather handbag. There’s no-one around to profile so I tap and swipe through my feed, scrolling past the endless ads to pick out any real messages or comments. I get halfway through a message from a needy old school friend when a man sits down in the seat opposite. I look up and meet a pair of intense 30-something blue eyes. The man is dressed smart-casual – jeans and tucked-in shirt – with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder. Tech worker, I guess. Overworked and cash to burn.
‘Never, ever, miss an opportunity,’ Dave had said. ‘You could be out buying groceries or sipping cocktails with your friends. It doesn’t matter. Never let one slip away.’
I set my device to profile mode and tilt it towards the man sitting opposite. The data appears in seconds. Raymond Devine, Level 3 Analyst at FlexiTech. I allow myself a faint smile as I scroll down through the data. The metro pulls into another station and Devine releases an enormous yawn before leaning his head against the window. This is it, now or never.
‘You look as tired as I feel,’ I say, and Devine stares at me for a few wordless seconds. I hold that approachable, potentially flirtatious smile Dave had us practice in front of a mirror.
‘I haven’t been sleeping well,’ he replies, finally.
‘You know I had the same problem a few months ago, but these days I sleep like a baby.’
30 seconds of silence passes and I’m just about to change tack when Devine finally speaks the words I’ve been wishing to hear.
‘So, tell me, what’s your secret?’
‘Have you heard of the DeTox-to-DeStress programme?’
I wait for an answer but Devine just continues staring at me with his blue eyes burning bright and alive.
‘It’s amazing,’ I continue, stamping the sense of growing unease down in my stomach. ‘You drink a range of specially prepared juices and…’
‘What’s your name?’ Devine interrupts.
‘I’m Ray, but you already know that, don’t you Angela?’
I’m suddenly aware of my heart beat.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t.’
‘Go on, tell me. What’s my job? My age and marital status?’
I squirm in my seat and look out the window at the platform racing past. Taking a deep breath, I turn back to meet his intense stare.
‘You work at FlexiTech. You’re 37 and single.’
For the first time, Ray’s face cracks into the tiniest smile.
‘Relax Angela. I’m not angry with you. You’re just doing your job.’
I feel my face redden. ‘I’m sorry, it’s my first day and I thought…’
‘You thought you’d get started early. I understand, really.’
I feel my shoulders fall an inch and the glow of embarrassment lift from my face. Another 30 seconds passes before Ray breaks the silence.
‘Privacy is dead now,’ he says. ‘Our whole lives are out there for all to see.’
‘Yeah I guess with profiling, you can know anything about anyone.’
‘You’re probably a bit too young to remember, but it wasn’t always like that. What year were you born, Angela?’
‘2015. Yes, definitely too young to remember. I’m sure you’ve had your whole life paraded online for the world to see.’
I study his face. His blue eyes are mesmerising and his hollow cheeks lend a handsome edge. But his intense glare is too much and I giggle my reply. ‘Yeah, my mum had a photo of me online, like, a minute after I was born.’
‘And so it’s been for the rest of your young life.’
I smile at him, unsure of what else to say. The metro pulls into another stop and the security guard steps off onto the platform.
‘Tell me about this wonderful new job of yours, Angela.’
‘It’s with VitaCare. We, I mean, they provide nutritional solutions to the overworked and overstressed.’ I cringe at the sound of Dave’s words in my mouth.
‘Nutritional solutions,’ Ray repeats. ‘We have a cure for everything, don’t we Angela?’ His eyes narrow a touch. ‘Everything but ourselves.’
That’s when it hits me. How stupid not to notice. He had his choice of free seats and he decides to sit right opposite me. Just my luck to try out my first pitch on a weirdo. I look across to the exit doors. Just two minutes or so until the next stop. Until I get off and move to another carriage.
‘How many friends do you have in your profile, Angela?’
I turn away from him and look out the window at the tunnel wall racing past.
‘I don’t know. Maybe 300.’
‘300.’ Ray leans forward so that his face is just inches from mine. ‘And how many of these people do you really know Angela? How many of them really know you?’
The train begins to slow and I slip my device in my handbag and begin to stand up. ‘This is my stop. It was nice to meet you, Ray.’
‘I’ve a bomb in my bag, Angela.’
I stop to process the words, like hearing a phrase in a second language that needs time for internal translation. Ray opens up his laptop bag and shows me a brown plastic package strapped with wires and tape.
‘Take a seat, Angela.’ He holds up his device to show me an interface of controls.
I lower back down as my heart slams in my chest. An eternal minute’s silence passes. I look down to my shaking hands and then up to Ray who continues to stare at me without expression. Silent tears begin to stream.
‘Please don’t,’ I whimper, as the exit doors open. No-one gets on. I look around but all I see is the gently rising back of the unconscious man at the opposite end of the carriage.
‘Why not, Angela? So you can live another day to profile anyone you think might buy your fucking juicing diet? So you and your friends can spew your egos all over the Internet?’
My brain shuts down. Ray’s voice remains calm and even, but his blue-eyed stare burns my skin. And now I get it. It’s not intensity that fills his eyes. It’s rage.
‘What’s wrong, Angela? Can’t think without your device? Can’t have a conversation outside of your profile?’
‘No,’ I say, because it’s all I can manage. Ray waits for me to continue and I wipe the tears away from my cheeks with both palms.
‘No, I can think,’ I say through chattering teeth. ‘I have real friends and a real life. I’m not the person you think I am.’
Ray laughs. A manic laugh. I look over to the sleeping man but the noise hasn’t stirred him.
‘Angela.’ Ray smiles, ‘Angel. Look at you. With your sexy little working-girl uniform.’
‘You don’t know me.’
‘Prove it. Prove to me you’re not like everyone else.’
I reach for my handbag. ‘I can show you pics of…’
‘Touch your device and I blow us to bits.’
I look over to the sleeping man, but Ray reads my mind.
‘Scream, and this goes off now.’
‘What do you want from me?’ I’m sobbing now, but I see no pity in his eyes.
‘I want you to prove to me that you’re human. Prove to me you care about anything but your pathetic little uploaded ego.’
I fill my lungs and try to steady my breath. The sobbing eases but my brain is mush.
‘You can’t think of one fucking thing to say, can you?’ Ray’s voice is louder now, his words boil with anger. I look over at the exit doors. Just a minute until the next stop, but Ray is a step ahead as always.
‘You better think of something,’ he holds up his device, ‘or I’m swiping us to oblivion when we reach the next stop.’
‘I have family.’ I look him straight in the eyes. ‘Parents and a brother. We’re close.’
‘We all have family, Angela. We’ve no choice with that one. I want to know something about you. Tell me one thing that makes you different, that makes you real.’
I feel the metro begin to slow. My mind scrambles. Say something. There must be something. What makes me different, unique? What can I say to stop this lunatic? I begin to speak but nothing comes out. It’s not working. I can’t think of anything. All that flashes through my mind are the fake-happy photos and inane comments of the people in my profile and the thought that sweeps through me is that maybe, just maybe, Ray is right. We are all the same. We don’t really know each other. We don’t even know ourselves. I let my head drop.
As the metro grinds to a halt, Ray lets loose a victorious smile.
‘Thank you, Angela,’ he says, and then his faces changes. In a second, it switches from sheer anger to something very different.
I close my eyes for a second and open them to see the figure of the sleeping man rise from the end of the carriage and begin to walk towards us. It’s a face I recognise.
‘Angela.’ Dave greets me in his Californian twang before taking the seat next to Ray. ‘We’re sorry to have put you through this.’
I look at the two men before me, both wearing matching expressions of concern. ‘I don’t understand.’
Dave speaks first. ‘Today isn’t your first day with VitaCare, Angela. We’re still at the recruitment phase.’
I look down at my shaking hands and then at Ray’s laptop bag.
‘Ray here is not a terrorist,’ Dave continues. ‘He’s a professional actor, with a hacked profile.’
‘I know it’s not the most comfortable experience,’ Ray adds, ‘but we find these extreme situations are a necessary evil to reveal to us the true character of our Market Champion candidates.’
‘So I,’ I begin, my voice cracked and tear-soaked, ‘I didn’t get the job.’
‘Well,’ Dave offers his hand, ‘we’ll be in touch.’
I stand to leave but almost fall back down. My legs are jelly. I push past the two men out into the aisle and stumble towards the exit doors. Only one thought enters my mind. I wish it was real. I wish the bomb was real.