One Day Like This

Submitted into Contest #243 in response to: Write a story where time functions differently to our world.... view prompt

2 comments

Speculative Fiction

The back of the truck smelled of sweat, sharp with microbial sourness, not unlike the kimchi Max had been concocting in the cupboard under his kitchen sink. He got a fleeting, distant feeling that he might not enjoy any fermented foods for a long time after this.

He counted everyone in the truck. Last time they had been summoned, ten years before, there were eight of them, Test Group Octagon. But this year, there were only six. Since the agreement they all signed at the start of the experiment stated the only viable reason to cease participation was to be no longer, Max thought without humour they might as well rename the group to Hexagon now. 

For the first few minutes, after they’d put on their seatbelts and settled in as much as possible under the circumstances, there was nothing between them but resigned silence, one that had gone through many stages: screaming, pleading, before finally imploding on itself. Ida was biting her nails, so Max put a hand over hers to stop it. He’d known for a whole decade she’d develop that habit, but watching her go through everything that led up to the onset of the nervous vice didn’t make the premonition any easier.

John, one of the calmer subjects, spoke first. Max noticed how much he changed over the last ten years, in fact, how they all changed. The boys grew some facial hair, the girls wore make-up. They all looked more measured, more grown into their features, some almost to a point of not being recognisable. 

‘So?’ John looked around the truck, which was now moving along at a steady pace. There were no windows in the back, but light strips on the ceiling illuminated the two opposing benches they were sat on, giving their skin an unhealthy hue and creating deep shadows. John leaned forward; someone else put their head in their hands, and another looked upwards into the light with a desperate frown. Ida renewed her gnawing, cupping her free hand over her mouth to conceal the noise, the gesture, or the shame, god knows which. Like a Renaissance painting, Max thought looking over the scene. 

A girl with ginger hair nodded mutely, and John sighed. If Max remembered correctly, the girl’s name was Rachel. When they first met, a decade before, he found her terribly unappealing: a lanky-looking thing with an orange bunch of tumbleweed over her head. Then again, what ginger ten-year-old girl seems attractive to a ten-year-old boy, if instead, she can just be mocked and prodded for how different she is. Max felt shock dangerously close to the border of arousal as he noted how her face had evolved, how her hair was now a shiny flurry under control. He wondered what it’d look like splayed on a pillow, crowning her naked body. 

More nods came from the benches. ‘Yep, it’s all true,’ Ida whispered. ‘And remember the weirdest thing?’ 

‘Yeah,’ John replied. ‘It told you that you would end up together.’ He pointed to Max. 

‘And we have,’ Ida said, taking Max’s hand into hers. 

He looked across at her face, the very face that finally settled into the grown-up curves he’d seen ten years before in the simulation, the vision, or, as it was officially known, The Hop. She had a beautiful smile that lit up other faces around it — when she expressed joy, she was a match thrown onto a pool of gasoline. Otherwise, she couldn’t be picked from a police lineup easily, and over some years after their first Hop, Max wondered how he’d come to end up with her if the vision was indeed correct. 

When their parents agreed to enter them into the first large-scale One Day programme, so confidently that their empathy and foresight could be nothing but heavily questioned, Max nearly popped with excitement. Here was an opportunity to step through a door and live one day of his life exactly a decade later. Whatever he might have seen on the other side, he could gear his life towards. Or he could try to outsmart fate like the clever boy he was. According to the preliminary findings, the vision would hold up to reality one hundred percent, but studies had only been done on a small number of participants, and the general public were advised to regard the results with a large pinch of salt.

The children were given extensive training before entering The Hop. According to the tutorials, their best course of action would be to try and assimilate into life so that the objects (people, pets, environments) wouldn’t realise they were part of the experiment. The day would be re-lived ten years later independently. Its objects, while possibly experiencing a level of miscellaneous discomfort on the day, having lived through it once already in a semi-alternate timeline, would not be affected. One’s actions on the day had no bearing on the future, either: breaking up with a wife did not equal divorce, unless relived; even dying was considered non-final. The only certain parameter The Hop delivered on was the preceding decade. 

In the first vision, Max lived a day of his twenties in the company of the mousy girl from the truck, Ida. A ten-year old in an older body, he did his best throughout the day to get Ida into bed, but discovered in the early afternoon that her father had recently died, and her mother was struggling with severe depression, so he gave up. Ida commented a couple of times on Max’s behaviour, noticing he was ‘even more immature than normal,’ but never worked out the deception. 

How could he have fallen in love with this particular girl? She wasn’t entirely unattractive, but she was nothing compared to the bosomed, tight-waisted miracles on legs Max was envisaging for himself. And there was something so inherently sad about her, always trailing the line between smiles and tears. 

On the ride back from The Hop, they exchanged numbers, shrugging and rolling their eyes. If this was indeed was fate had in store for them, they could discuss it one day. Neither called the other for years. And when they ran into each other eight years later at university, Ida ate Max like the black hole she was, pulling him in with a gravitational field so strong he felt ripped apart by her love. They never needed to discuss the vision, and the gnawing discouragement Max experienced on learning Ida was to be his chosen partner became a false memory. 

The truck stopped. The beautiful ginger girl made a sign of the cross on her freckled forehead and shoulders. John, the guy who spoke, sat back and closed his eyes briefly before the back doors opened and the light of dawn tore into the little container. 

‘Y’all ready for The Hop?’ someone they couldn’t see because their eyes had watered asked, and laughed with genuine glee. ‘Come on, let’s go, kids.’ 

The building appeared smaller than Max had remembered, as did the truck. In his pre-adolescent mind, the building loomed large over his head, but now, it seemed more like a second-grade prison, with its barbed wire, grey exterior, and gates upon gates upon checkpoints, complete with armed guards.

Ida gulped loudly all the way through their security checks, retina and fingerprint scans, weight measurements, and instruction talk. And then, they all separated. She got led to one room, with Max being pointed to the next door down. They looked at each other, nodded, each forced a smile straight from a Greek tragedy. 

‘I love you,’ Ida mouthed, and Max responded by forming a heart with his thumbs and forefingers and pointing it at her. 

In science fiction films, the jump to another dimension, or another state of consciousness, is often imagined accompanied by a multitude of tools: sleek metal tubes, IVs full of curious liquids, electrodes and wires. But The Hop was nothing like it. It was a door. A cheap-looking door at that, in the middle of the room, seemingly not glued or drilled down, just staring at him with a metal button handle like an eye. Max went right through, fully expecting to be asleep on the other side as per last time. He’d also been reassured by the coordinators that no participants would be dropped into a situation requiring their full attention so that they had time to process their surroundings. 


***


Beeping in darkness, rhythmic, close, and a sucking sound, almost melodic, together in unison like the world’s smallest and strangest orchestra. Max feels awake, but his body appears to want to remain asleep. He can barely tell his extremities from one another, and discovers a great sluggishness all over, like his body has hibernated. Even his eyelids refuse to follow orders. His mind isn’t far behind, either: the sucking and beeping occupy a large portion of his available attention, and the little sliver left seems to operate at a reduced rate. How has he got here? He can still feel a coolness in his hand from the door handle he’d just touched, but the feeling is dissipating rapidly into a numbness, a sameness. What door handle? 

He strains to tune out the beeping and focus on opening his eyes instead. This must be the key to this bizarre environment he’s just found himself in: if he can only get to see it, the world will come rushing in through the pupil and into the brain, repopulating it, planting impressions and images and memories and thoughts. But he can’t. The link between his faint will and his body is broken like a collapsed bridge. 

A sudden warmth envelops one of his hands, and it takes him a while to figure out it’s his right one. Ida, he just knows it’s Ida from the way she slides her fingers with sharp, bitten-down nails in between his, one by one. There is something so shy about her which he finds so irresistibly sexy, like she’s a fawn in the woods and he’s a wolf who can prey on her, bite into her long neck, keep her down, let her find comfort in submission, in not having to pretend to be brave for once. 

‘Max, we need to talk,’ he hears over the beeping and the sucking, but the sucking is so loud and close it nearly drowns out Ida’s voice. Open your fucking eyes, Max, he commands himself, squeeze that fucking hand. Nothing. 

‘I mean, I need to talk at you, I guess.’ A sigh in perfect harmony with the rhythmic suction, a brief variation on the monotonous theme. ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore, really. I told myself that when I finish reading The Stand to you, and if you don’t wake up after that crappy ending to yell it’s a waste of a thousand pages, then I guess you’ll just never wake up.’

A long silence follows. Ida’s fingers tap and slither, slide back out, a little greased now, and Max senses a growing unease, whether in himself or his environment, he can’t tell. Is a man not one with his surroundings anyway? If only he could see her, if only he could understand exactly what she meant. Sometimes she gets sweaty hands when she’s feeling stressed, but sometimes, she gets them when she’s cold. 

One: she was reading something to him. Two: there is no hope. He holds onto the conclusions that float on top of the limited consciousness he has access to. ‘Max… I’m going to have to move on. Ever since mum died, I’ve felt like skimmed milk, do you know what I mean? First what happened to you. Seriously, fuck that day. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the experiment, too. That rumination semi-skimmed me.’ She laughs, and the laugh chokes and turns into something else, something shivering. ‘Then with my mum… I knew she was dying, but I thought god was only meant to deal us a hand we could play, right? I’m just so thin, so watery. I feel like I could cry for a hundred years and not dehydrate.’

Another silence. Max listens, listens with all of attention. Three: Ida’s mum is dead. Four: something’s happened to him. Four, no, five: Ida no bueno. 

‘I don’t even miss you anymore, not like I used to. How horrible is that. But I still feel guilty about Jason. I never wanted him that way, I promise. It wasn’t anything sinister, we really were just friends. But his wife left, and the whole custody thing. He’s decaf, and I’m skimmed milk. It’s a joke we have. I feel so guilty joking with him, more than anything else.’

A spot of moist warmth moves around Max’s face, wetting his forehead, eyes, cheeks, mouth at last. ‘I am so sorry. I still have hope, just so you know. In case you can hear me. But I think one of the nurses will have to read to you now.’ 

The silence that follows stretches for decades, then centuries, until Max is the last human in the universe known to man, and that man is Max. He remembers something someone said to him about an opening, a door. ‘The opening will reveal itself to you, so step into the portal.’ He waits for the door. Eons pass. The starless darkness doesn’t move, doesn’t shimmer, doesn’t pulsate, just stands still covering reality with a black blanket, and all Max hears is that infernal beeping and sucking. When an opening presents itself, like a creak in the fabric of his limited universe, he jumps through. 

Ida is waiting for him in the hall. Her eyes dart up to meet his, and she breaks. ‘Please, Max, come on. I’m here, we’re here.’ She reaches for him, but he turns away her warmth, that same warmth that will abandon him ten years from now. He walks down the hall shaking his head, and Ida follows, sobbing single words of apology, or perhaps consolation.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ he yells across his shoulder. ‘Just shut up, Ida.’

It’s dark outside. He’s forgotten they were gone all day. He’s forgotten what the sun looks like. They walk across the road to the marked point they had been instructed to wait at after the experiment. Max paces up and down; nobody else is out yet. The truck is nowhere to be seen.

‘Please, Max. We could move, go somewhere. We could try to trick this.’

‘Who is this fucking Jason?’ he asks.

‘I don’t know, I’ve never met him.’ Her shoulders jolt up and down under the breathy, choking sobs she’s letting out.

‘Why are you crying?’ he demands. ‘You get to go on living, and fucking this Jason guy. You have no idea how it was.’

She tries to put a shoulder around him, but he stumbles away. He doesn’t want to be touched. There’s a barrier between them now, a wall of darkness so thick he can barely see her anymore for what she was only a few hours before. She follows him, and he watches her intently, taking steps back so that she can’t touch him. There’s that damn beeping sound again, except more forceful now.

‘Max,’ she pleads, and her eyes open up wide. ‘Max, be careful!’

He steps backwards off the curb and into the road, and the beeping turns into one continuous moan. He sees two headlights, but he’s falling. He feels suddenly thankful for these lights, dispersing the darkness he was drowning in all day, flooding his field of vision. There’s a screech, one mechanical, another organic, that’s his Ida. Then there’s darkness again once more.

March 28, 2024 15:59

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2 comments

Luca King Greek
14:13 Apr 04, 2024

I think the concept is great, the writing is immersive, there's tension, and it honored the prompt. It's a clever and good story! I do think the story can move along faster with a bit of editing. One example: "For the first few minutes, after they’d put on their seatbelts and settled in as much as possible under the circumstances, there was nothing between them but resigned silence", would work quite well as..."After they put on their seatbelts, there was resigned silence...". Nodded mutely.... nodded? viable reason.... reason? clo...

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D H
17:56 Mar 28, 2024

Great story Nina! Beautifully written.

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