Life hasn’t been simple for me for a long time. My wife, Sori, makes it easier, but a mortgage, debts and four loud children are a lot for a junior baker and her work-from-home husband to handle.
I can’t complain though. It’s a damned good life in the end, even if it isn’t a peaceful one.
Most of the time, at least. Once a year, Sori takes all four kids on a week’s budget holiday, to give them all a treat. I always promise I’ll go with them the next year, but as per usual my work has caught up with me at the wrong time, and once again I’m left alone in a silent house; working to earn the bread my family will eat when they return.
And once again, on the sixth day of my peace, a knock comes at the door.
I push my tired body up off the ancient chair I work at and walk out of the broom-closet-sized room I call my office. Walking down the corridor, I pass our three bedrooms, shared between the six of us; Sori always wanted a bigger house, but the money never came, and such dreams have faded, those of our children taking priority. I’m almost glad though; this house may be small, but it holds all the memories of my family. I’d leave if Sori truly wanted it, but not without sorrow.
Paired beats give away exactly who stands outside. The only time I’ve ever felt the desire to leave this little home is on the sixth day of my rest, when those knocks come at the door.
My hand clutches the dull brass handle, and with a twist and a pull, the door hinges creak and the outside air once again enters my house.
‘Hello sir! Mind if we have a little chat? I’ve something amazing to offer you today!’
I pause, just for a moment, and with that moment comes a slight sigh of anxiety. I’ve been through this too many times; I can’t handle it like I used to.
‘Yes, I know. You’d better come inside.’
The woman walks through, signalling to the two large men behind her to follow. Just as she passes me, I see the small flicker of sympathy on her face, the same glance I see every year. She wishes, just as I do, that she didn’t have to be here.
‘Thank you sir!’ The smiling mask reappears as she follows the same route she memorised a long time ago, leading her two men behind her.
‘I’d say you’re welcome, but it’s starting to feel like I’m reading from a script.’ I complain, as I follow her through to the kitchen, the only room with a table large enough.
She sits at the head of the table, my seat, and the same damn chair she’s sat on every time we play through this charade. Her associates sit at either side, and I take the chair opposite her.
‘Why’s that sir?’ She asks, smiling her fake smile.
‘We’ve done this every year for ten damn years now! You’ve yet to convince me to buy into your disgusting plans; why would I now?’ I reply, my voice growing louder than polite conversation should allow. I steel myself, but these people do not deserve polite conversation.
She looks similar to how she always has; red hair at shoulder length, pale freckles and jaded blue eyes. She has aged over the decade, of course; her face still reminds of me of something, of someone I knew a long time ago perhaps. The flicker of recognition still evades me, and I cannot find her likeness within my memories.
‘Well sir, I’m excited to talk about our new services today! I know you’ve never been interested in the past, but today I can offer you the best of deals on our very finest packages. I can – ‘ She begins.
‘Do you offer the same form of service that you did last time?’ I cut her off.
‘Well of course, but now-’
‘Not interested.’ I state.
‘Please sir, if you’ll just hear me out, I can tell you about our very finest services, usually reserved for VIP guests, now available for the public!’ She’s almost begging; I expect she works on commission.
‘I’ve not the energy for this; do your damned sales pitch, and then get out.’ I growl.
‘Thank you sir!’ She sounds positively thrilled; I swear this woman is wasted outside the acting world. ‘At Sentio, we offer just one thing, and we offer it well. We offer experience in its most perfect form!’
Oh joy, she’s doing the whole pitch.
‘Life can be a struggle, or even a burden at times. It can become difficult to cope with the stresses of money, family, health and all the rest of life’s woes. However, Sentio can now take away those troubles, not just for those who struggle in life, but for all who wish to have all their dreams realised!’
I am about to complain, until I see the stern looks on her rather huge companion’s faces; I stay quiet.
‘Due to brilliant advances at our own private labs, a scientific breakthrough was achieved! We are now able to suspend human life in our own copy protected RealityPod and provide an experience so lifelike, none of our clients were ever able to tell the difference!’
She paused only momentarily for breath before returning to the pitch.
‘Through our neural interface, we can find the greatest and most desired unfulfilled dreams within the client, and provide them the life they always wanted, their perfect life! ‘
‘Right, that’s enough. So far you’ve told me nothing new. Why do you expect me to buy into this disgusting affair now, when I’ve sent you away nine years running?’ I stop her.
‘Well sir, it’s simple! For a one time, very low cost, we can set you up in your very own ideal reality!’ She exclaims, seemingly overjoyed at the idea.
‘Low cost? That’s not how I remember it.’ I say, knowing I’ve caught her.
‘Well sir, for the perfect life it is a low cost! You simply sign over all your worldly goods and possessions to Sentio, and you get so much more in return!’
‘So you would get my house, my land, my money and the rest. And in return I get a glorified video game. What happens to my family?’
‘Your family would become tenants here. They would be allowed to live rent free, as long as they did a small amount of work for Sentio. We would even keep up your mortgage payments; it’s a very fair deal.’
‘Oh yes, what jobs would they do? Either marketing drones like you, or muscle lackeys like these two?’ I saw, gesturing towards the two silent men on either side.
‘Well, many go that way sir. There are some positions in admin and retail though. Oh! I haven’t told you the best part! For those like you, who are unsure that they wish to partake in the RealityPod program, we offer a buyback deal! Within the machine itself, you are offered the opportunity to cancel your deal. A family member visits you, using our special administrator machines, and offers the choice to return to reality.’
‘Oh for…look, that’s not what I meant. Here, if it’s such an amazing deal, why are you and your lackeys here in the real world; why don’t you sign on?’ I grumble.
She pauses and struggles to answer, her joyful mask momentarily removed.
‘My father…joined the program. A very long time ago, and I still work for Sentio .’
She quickly regains her composure and continues the pitch.
‘The deal we offer clearly states a family member will offer the return to reality, so your family might get to do that too. The clients are given ten opportunities to return; if they decline each time, they are deemed happy in their new world; if they accept, they return with no ill will at all.’
‘Why are you-’ I try to ask her.
‘Sir, my father went into the machines after my mother died. My mother took us on holiday … when he heard the news … he was in the machines before we even returned, me and my siblings. I wish he’d come back, but at the same time, I don’t blame him. If he’s happier in his perfect universe, then so be it. Won’t you come and just try it? Can’t you try leaving this world, for an even better one?’
‘No, and I’d like you to leave my house now, before-’ She cuts me off again.
‘Is this a photo of your family?’ She asks, picking up an old family photo. ‘Your family looks lovely. Tell me about your daughter, the one in the middle.’ Her voice is getting more strained. I answer if only so she doesn’t panic further.
‘Jasmine? She’s 16.’ I say confused.
‘Describe her to me, please.’
‘I – fine. She’s a lovely girl, always been a people person, though sometimes she gets nervous. She wants to be in the theatre – she’s always taking acting classes. She’s got beautiful red hair, and her mother’s blue eyes. Look, is this some sort of sales pitch? Because it isn’t working.’
‘I…’ She mumbles. ‘So, you won’t come back with me then?’
‘No. I didn’t before, and I shan’t now,’ I state, leading them to the door.
Just as I’m about to close the door behind them, the woman begins to speak again. I quickly interrupt. ‘No. No more. I’m a busy man. I’ll see you next year.’
She replies, ‘No sir. You only get ten.’ And with that, she walks away.
I shut the door and get back to work.