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Fiction Science Fiction Speculative


“Hey, Simone,” I said. “Sorry I’m late.”

I blew my nose in the tissue and sat in the chair.

“Hi, Reed. It’s good to see you again! Looks as if you’re under the weather?”

I stuffed the used tissue into my jean pocket. “Yeah, can’t shake this head cold. Isn’t COVID or RSV; I got my test results back this morning. It’s just the damn flu.”

Simone smiled empathetically. “Still feel up for it today? We could always reschedule?”

“Nah, nah,” I said, waving her off. “I’m good. Let’s get going.”

“Well,” Simone offered, “we could start with work?”

“Ugh,” I groaned, itching the back of my neck. I routinely griped to Simone about the idiot account executives and their unrealistic promises to clients; about my manager and her tendency for complacency; and about HR.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Yesterday, they made me fill out a survey. How I’m adjusting to online work, it said. It took me twenty minutes to answer it and made me late for an engineering huddle. The guys didn’t appreciate that.”

Simone followed me into that hole, asking, “How’s it going? Working from home?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I shrugged. I absently pulled my phone out of my back pocket and glanced at its indicators. “Every day, I wake up. I walk into the kitchen. I make breakfast. And I bring it back to my bedroom to eat at my desk ‘cause my team’s Zoom meeting starts at eight. It’s convenient, but I … I kinda miss the Max, you know? All the people? I used to get a good walk in, too.”

“Did you finish the questionnaire?”

“Yeah,” I said, setting my phone down on my leg. “After I submitted it, HR emailed and said they’re putting a $500 work-from-home bonus in my check next week. Sweet! A one-time thing, to pay for wifi, a better chair? Stuff like that.”

“That’s generous!” Simone beamed.

I shrugged. “Working from home, it’s more like chained to home. I spend my whole life in my bedroom - morning, day, and night - and it’s not like a got a window or anything. It’s the same four walls, day in, day out. I guess I miss the office. And I’ll probably spend that bonus on clothes. I don’t fit into crap anymore.”

Simone looked at me, concerned. “Your weight again? Have you spoken with your doctor?”

I looked up at the ceiling, exhaled, and I shook my head. “Yeah. Had a telehealth session on Tuesday.”

“Did they offer any ideas?”

I picked up and waved my phone at Simone and said, “They scanned my biometrics. Seven pounds! Said I’m at risk of hypertension? My blood pressure’s too high? Anyway, they’re mailing a prescription.”

Simone scribbled in her notebook, looked back at me, and asked, “Did you ask about the recipes?”

“Yeah,” I replied and provided a sarcastic pair of air quotes, saying, “They passed me links to healthy recipes like I’ve got a fucking Safeway in my kitchen.”

Simone raised her pen at me and said, “Take your health seriously, Reed, and try some of those recipes.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, checking my phone again.

“Oh!” I snapped, pointing at Simone. “Did I tell you? Last time? My parents, they’re moving to Texas.”

Simone stopped writing. She raised an eyebrow and asked, “Really? What’s in Texas?”

I laughed, throwing my hands up, saying, “You got me! Last summer, they joined this online megachurch and made a bunch of friends; you know, ‘Texas Friends.’ Said they wanted to be closer to them and get more sun, escape the socialist-dem-commie Hell-hole that’s Portland. Ptht, whatever. They’re packing up and driving out this weekend. Couldn’t pay me enough, man.”

As Simone returned to her notebook, my doorbell rang.

“Shit, there it is,” I said, waving to the camera. “Hey, Simone, hang on: I’ll be right back.”

“No problem,” Simone smiled, addressing her notebook.

Dashing into the living room, I opened the front door and grabbed the food. I went back to my bedroom, plopped into the chair, and unwrapped my dinner.

“This okay?” I asked.

“Totally fine,” Simone smiled, her gaze turning back to me.

Starving, I took a hearty bite, chewed it, took a noisy slurp from the soda straw, and continued through a mouthful of hamburger. “Everything is changing.”

“How so?” Simone asked pleasantly.

I shrugged, unable to really put a finger on it, and then remembered, saying, “Oh, hang on.”

I withdrew my phone, authorized the release of funds for the meal, and tipped the driver.

Finishing my first bite, I looked to the corner of my room and said, “My parents leaving and all. And my friends, they asked me on Thursday - they’re wanting me to move in with them. On the west side. Including me, there’d be six of us renting a three-bedroom house. It’s near a Max line, so that’s cool.”

I took another gaping bite of the burger, then said, “I hate roommates. They never pick up after themselves; the sinks, toilets, dishes - they get so gross. But I’ve been thinking about it. It’d be cool to hang with them-”

Simone added abruptly, “Living with your friends would be a great idea, Reed.”

“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head, “but living with them: it wouldn’t be like before the pandemic. Everything’s closed; the places we used to hang out at they’re all shut down. A couple of my friends, they’re afraid to go out anymore, so they stay at home on the weekends. They’ve taken up playin’ board games if you’d believe it.”

I took a long swig from my drink, rocking my head back and forth, before saying, “Yeah, yeah. Jenny, from accounting? Remember her?”

Simone nodded. “Yes. I remember Jenny.”

Gulping, I said, “Yeah, she came out and played Catan last Thursday with me and the gang. Did I tell you she’s got that long-COVID shit? She can’t drive; Carly had to go and pick her up. After a while, though, Carly had to take Jenny home early. She was exhausted.”

“That sounds awful,” Simone agreed.

“Even when Jenny works at home,” I continued, “she says she can’t concentrate, everything seems crazy, blurry, out of focus. She said she gets help from her mom, taking Jeremy to school and stuff. It’s been eight months and it’s not going away. Man, I don’t want none of that. And, if I were to move in with my friends, it’d just increase my likelihood. I dunno.”

Shifting topics, Simone asked with a mischievous smile, “I haven’t heard about Jenny in a while. How’s the dating life?”

Gobbling finger-fulls of fries, I rolled my eyes at the camera and held up my phone. “Whatever. The app keeps matching me with weird randos: paleo-vegan Doctor Who fans who knit scarves for street lamps. I mean, who does that shit?”

Simone smiled encouragingly. “Meeting someone would be a great idea, Reed.”

I finished my sandwich and, snapping my greasy fingers, I recalled something that was so awkward, I laughed out loud and told Simone about it. “What was, oh, Maeve - yeah, Maeve. I met this chic named Maeve two weeks ago. Said she only did VC’s-”

Simone looked at me puzzled and asked, “VC’s?”

“Virtual coffees,” I replied, then pressed on. “She’s cute! Cropped purple hair, and funny, too. She had manga plastered all over her walls. My Hero Academia. She had a huge-ass Bakugo poster behind her door; it was so awesome. Anyway. She only does VC’s, she said, out of concern for her mental health and physical well-being; it takes her a long time to trust people.”

“Dating is hard these days,” Simone agreed. “Especially for the female-bodied.”

“Yeah,” I said, bundling up the wax food papers around my desk, crushing them into a ball, then shoving it into the delivery bag. I threw the bag to the garbage corner of my room. “She’s kinda nearby? Salem? She doesn’t have a car either, so I don't know how we’d meet or see each other. I couldn’t Uber all that way.”

“Pets,” Simone smiled. “Have you given any thought to a kitten? Like we spoke about last time?”

Shrugging, I shook my head. “Nah. Landlord don’t allow cats; says so in the lease, but hey, check this out.”

Accessing a bookmarked shopping page from my phone, I tossed it over to my workstation and shared the window with Simone. The product’s animation started to play, and a robotic cat twisted its head, mewed, and make electronic purring noises. Its box featured this kindly old grandmother petting it. “Can you believe that shit?”

“Awww, it is cute. A pet robot sounds like a great idea, Reed,” smiled Simone.

I watched the video play out. It seemed lifelike, animated, and soft, probably something comfortable to pet and touch for a while.

It was too expensive, though, and I couldn’t afford it.

My mind drifted briefly, and I said, “Simone?”

Simone smiled back at me, answering, “Yes, Reed?”

I turned my head and placed my chin into my hand, thinking. “I walked, er, I went walking on Sunday. Outside. Down by the river.”

“Yes?”

I tried to think about what I wanted to say. Words never came easy and I relied on my computer and phone to make suggestions whenever I struggled. But, for now, I thought hard for a moment and said, “I went for a walk. It was a sunny day. People were there. They were walking, too, and some went running by with sound buds in their ears. I tried … I tried to say hello, you know, like, as some went by? I raised my hand and gave a little wave?”

I waved at the camera.

“But they kept on going,” I said glumly. “Didn’t stop or nothing; didn’t see me, really.”

“Making new friends is always difficult,” Simone reminded me, but I shrugged her off.

“I took that long walk on Sunday,” I repeated, remembering the warm sun on my face, “and it felt pretty good. I came across this food cart. Its walls had been replaced by clear sheets of plexiglass. It was one of those bikini barista places, you know, where some hot chic in a swimsuit serves up coffee?”

“Coffee,” Simone reminded me, “would be a poor choice given your blood pressure.”

Remembering the woman behind the glass, I outstretched my hand into the space between my keyboard and my monitor, and I said, “She was right there. And, damn, she was hot, and when she smiled at me with her big black frizzy hair and I felt like, ice cream, you know, melted around the edges, running down the cone? I didn’t know what to say. I even gave her my order wrong.”

I snickered, put the back of my hand up to my mouth, glanced at Simone, and said, “Besides my friends, she was the first person I’d seen in a month.”

“Dating is hard these days,” Simone repeated pleasantly. “Especially for the female-bodied.”

I could feel something clench in my chest. I didn’t know what that feeling was. I just thought about it and said again to Simone, “She was the first person who saw me in a month.”

Simone smiled and offered some advice: there are always more fish in the sea before saying, “Reed, our time’s almost over. Did you want to rebook in two weeks?”

“Yes,” I said absently, my eyes returning to the screen. “Same time, that’s good.”

Simone smiled and said, “Thank you, Reed, I look forward to it! Until then, I have some homework for you: follow up on the idea of moving as a change in your surroundings would be a positive consideration. Living with your friends would be a great idea, Reed.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, nodding to the screen.

“I’ll see you around!” Simone said. Our session ended, and Simone’s face was replaced with her logo, SymonAI: Friendship and Counseling.

Sitting there for a minute, I recalled the Bikini Barista and her gorgeous smile, and I wondered what her name was and if she always worked on Sundays.

Then I started picking up all of that garbage I’d thrown in the corner. I’d have to go to sleep soon.



November 26, 2022 17:47

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16 comments

Wendy Kaminski
18:48 Nov 26, 2022

Knew it was PDX! Great treatise on our complete and ironic disconnect in a world of connect.

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Russell Mickler
19:00 Nov 26, 2022

Hi! Grin - thank you, Wendy - what gave it away? The Dr. Who fans knitting scarves for street lamps? :)

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Wendy Kaminski
19:05 Nov 26, 2022

Well the title, for starters, lol. :) (Say no more, say no more. ;) Also the parents, even though it was in the same line... the minute their rant started, I knew I had heard it before...! Edit: Though, the Dr. Who fans part is absolutely within the norm, folks!

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Russell Mickler
14:11 Mar 28, 2023

My landing page for this work can be found at: https://www.black-anvil-books.com/the-bikini-barista As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for sticking around. R

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Graham Kinross
01:04 Feb 06, 2023

The fact that Bikini Barista doesn't have a name, Reed needs to go back and ask.

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Russell Mickler
01:22 Feb 06, 2023

Totally agree, Graham …! Thanks for reading! R

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Graham Kinross
01:30 Feb 06, 2023

You're welcome, what gave you the idea for this?

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Russell Mickler
01:48 Feb 06, 2023

Hmm the theme primarily - what’s changing, in my mind, is our interrelations with others being replaced with layers of technology. AI, in particular, will become a lower cost means to provide human interaction than a real human, and the profit motive will see that through. So the “punchline” of the story is the SimoneAI (where we all will be interacting with layers of AI in nearly every facet of the economy in ten years), and the spin I was tying to make that we’ve “forgotten” how to interact, like, say hello, ask her name ) … and even th...

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Graham Kinross
02:01 Feb 06, 2023

Which authors do you like?

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Russell Mickler
02:10 Feb 06, 2023

So I read a lot of fantasy … I draw inspiration from Terry Pratchett, Discworld; Douglas Adams; Michael Moorcock; David Eddings; Brandon Sanderson; Wies and Hickman; Ursula LaGuine; Katheryn Rush; Jim Butcher's Dresden series. I’m a fan of short stories and novellas. Long form prose in fantasy is so … laborious … (read; George RR and Robert Jordan, as examples) that it’s like the depth/art in their work (and the gaggle of authors who emulate them) becomes unapproachable by a casual reader. It’s just tedious to read three pages about a mea...

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Aoi Yamato
02:20 Aug 14, 2023

good story, russell.

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Russell Mickler
19:18 Aug 15, 2023

Hi there, Aoi! WOW thanks for reading that one! You know, I think I submitted it to Reedsy about a year ago - it was one of my earlier stories on this platform. Truly appreciate you taking the time to read the work and comment. Thank you :) R

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Aoi Yamato
00:45 Aug 16, 2023

you are welcome. i glad it make you happy.

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