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By Michael Wooten
A note on this story:
This story is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. Here’s a summary of the license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ Attribution. The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees must give the original author credit. No Derivative Works. The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display and perform only unaltered copies of the work —not derivative works based on it. Noncommercial. The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees may not use the work for commercial purposes—unless they get the licensor’s permission. ________________________________________________________________
I would like to dedicate this story to my wife for her love and support, and to Susie, my inspiration. _______________________________________________________________________ _ The old man sat at the kitchen table. Outside in the hallway there was a line of people waiting to see him. The people in the hallway were each clutching a blank cassette, but more than that, they were clutching their dreams, their hopes, and their fears. The next person was sent in. She was in her late teens; she wore round glasses that hid her face and had long dark hair that hung straight down on either side of her face. The old man motioned to an old, beat up, cigarette stained tape recorder that sat on the table. She obediently put the tape in and pressed record. The old man gingerly pulled a cigarette out of his pack and laid it back down on the table. He lifted up a nicotine colored hand and flicked the wheel on his lighter; the wheel struck a flint, creating a spark that lights up the 1
wick, then he touched the flame to the tip of his cigarette. The tip began to glow red. As he sucked on the other end of the cigarette he puffed out some smoke several times before he inhaled, taking in a deep breath, he drew the smoke down into his ancient lungs. He left the cigarette dangling from his mouth and took a drag every now and again; he then turned his attention back to the cards on the table. He picked them up and started to shuffle them, and then he dealt them out, seven cards, the first one facing up. He dealt out the cards until this hand of solitaire was ready, then he drew the first card, a ten of diamonds. He placed it under the jack of spades, and his hands know the rest. The only sounds in the room were the clicking of the cards and the breathing of the two people left alone in the room. *** Bran sits on the hovertrain, waiting for it to come to his stop. He sits with his head on his hand staring out the window. His glasses cast a phosphorescent light across his face as he absentmindedly checks his email and updates his blog, his other hand slightly twitching as he types his responses. With a wave of his hand he casts all the open windows to the dock. His stop is next and he doesn’t want to be so distracted that he misses it. He’s been late one too many times, and although he doesn’t need the job he doesn’t want to get fired. Bran’s mother got him the job; it’s only a part time job minding a store, to build Bran’s character so she keeps on telling him. The store is one of those new age retro stores, one of the many stores that have boomed since the invention of the machine. Bran has often wondered why he has to go to this shop day after day, it’s not like he needs to be here. He makes plenty of money raging campaigns across the virtual fields of war and selling his short stories. The store is, for the most part, automated, provided that people are wearing. All of the store’s merchandise is equipped with arphids and if the customers are wearing, they will have at least one arphid somewhere on them. The arphids link up to the main computer and if a customer walks out with something in his hand a sensor by the door will pull his information from the arphid and automatically charge his account. If a customer tried to walk out with something and had no money or arphids, the front door would automatically lock and the police would be called. This would be a royal pain in the ass for Bran, who would then have to be locked up in the store with some would-be thief until the police decided to arrive. So Bran is only needed for those rare occasions when a non-wearer comes into the store, and when new stock arrives. It leaves him plenty of time to surf the net, write, and talk to friends. Bran was an unassuming teenager. He was tall and thin with dark wavy hair and light blue eyes. If you asked him, however, he would say that he was hopelessly average looking and fat. Too many years spent looking at pictures of digitally manipulated models had given him a poor body image. He had a girlfriend and he thought that he was in love with her, but deep down inside he knew that she wasn’t the one. She was too different; she was too cold and distant. He wanted someone with warmth and passion, but for some reason he was determined to make this work out. Maybe it was because of his mother, once she made up her mind to do something, she would move hell and high water to do 2
so. They had met at a New Year’s Eve party. Bran didn’t want to go. He was feeling anxious and socially inadequate that night, and he really just wanted to stay home. He never really saw the appeal of New Year’s Eve anyway. It’s only fun when you’re a kid who gets to stay up past bedtime or an adult who gets to go out drinking, although to Bran, that doesn’t sound that appealing either. His mother finally coaxed him out of his hiding place and went with him to the party. Bran was sure that this party would be just like the last one, parents upstairs drinking and having fun, with the children relegated to the basement. Normally that would be okay, but with this crowd, Bran and his friend Thom were two of the oldest, so they felt like they were basically forced into babysitting. This time was different. Thom was there with another friend, Jen, and someone Bran had never met before. After they had said their hellos, Jen introduced Bran to her friend, Sarah. She was tall and thin with short red hair, sharp blue eyes and thin pink lips. Right from the start Bran couldn’t take his eyes off of her. After a little while they decided to go to Jen’s house, which was right around the corner and, since her parents were at the party, completely empty. On the short walk to Jen’s house Bran could faintly hear Jen and Sarah subvocalizing to each other. He watched as they carried on their private conversation. They would look at each other and giggle and give each other knowing glances. Bran could tell that they were plotting something. What it was he had no way of knowing, but it filled him with dread. Sensing his rising anxiety, the halo of electronic equipment surrounding his brain started to flood his neural receptors with serotonin, instantly calming him. He tried to ping Thom on his neural network to ask him what was going on, but Thom had nothing to offer but his own confusion. The house was dark; they had only the moon and the streetlight out front to guide them through the dark and empty house. They settled in the living room amongst the shadows and dust motes. They sat in awkward silence for a couple of minutes, while Jen and Sarah kept pm’ing each other, leaving Thom and Bran in the dark. Suddenly Jen suggested that they should play truth or dare. Everyone thought that it would be a good idea, everyone but Bran. They went ahead and started. Jen went first. She chose Bran and he asked for a truth. “How are you going to die, Bran,” she asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. He knew where she was going with this. She wanted to know if he had had the machine test his blood, so Sarah could decide if he was worth dating. “You mean you haven’t been tested yet? How can you stand not knowing?”
“I don’t want to know, because I don’t want it to get in the way of living. I don’t want to be a shadow. I want to live everyday like it’s my last day on earth.” It was a conversation that Bran had had way to often since the invention of the machine. The machine could tell you how you were going to die with just a drop of your blood. It had been discovered a few years ago, but no one really understood how it worked. It had some strange AI with a warped sense of humor. The machine worked like this: a drop of blood would be placed in the machine to be processed, then after a couple of minutes it would print out, in neat block letters on a thin ribbon of paper, how you would die. The machine was always rather vague in its descriptions though; there are a million different ways to die in a car accident. Once there was a person who was killed by a car while he slept in his bed, safe on the second floor. The driver lost control and caught air going over a hill. But the machine was always right. If it said car accident that is how you would die; no matter what you did it was always true, though sometimes hindsight was needed to see the connection. The machine completely changed the way that human beings interacted with each other. It no longer mattered what color your skin was, not that it ever really mattered. Racism was just another form of control and so was this. A people divided are a people who are easily manipulated. People were no longer black or white; they were lifers and shadows. The lifers were the lucky ones; they were the ones whose little ribbons of paper said something like old age, or peacefully in your sleep. While this could mean a long life, it could also mean something else entirely, like dying at the age of 32 of a heart attack, due to some sort of birth defect. Most people took it to mean a long life. Back in the living room Bran stared at the light coming in through the window and the patterns that it made on the floor. He figured that any chance he’d had with Sarah was pretty much gone. Most people wouldn’t want to bother with anyone who hadn’t been tested. It used to be that a woman would want to marry a lawyer or a doctor, someone with stability, now they wanted someone to grow old with and they didn’t want to waste their time with someone who would not live a long life. Bran was sure he was doomed, so it completely surprised him when a couple of minutes later, when it was Jen’s turn again, she again picked Bran. Bran, not wanting any follow-up questions, bravely asked for a dare. “Okay,” she said, eyeing the room sheepishly “I dare you and Sarah to go up into my room for five minutes.” As Bran looked at Sarah the light from the streetlight lit up Sarah’s eyes for a brief moment before he looked away, carefully inspecting a dust bunny that was hiding under a sofa. After much aw-shucksery Bran followed Sarah up the stairs and into Jen’s room where Sarah closed the door and in three quick steps was seated on the bed smoothing out the pleats in her skirt. Bran fumbled around awkwardly for a little while, looking everywhere but the bed. Finally she said, “Have a seat.” So he walked slowly over and sat on the edge of the bed. He tried making small talk, something that he was bad at even
in the best of situations. “What’s your middle name?” “Daye” she replied. “What’s yours?” It went on like that for a couple of minutes before their eyes locked and then, as if hypnotized, they slowly leaned into each other and kissed, slowly at first, their lips barely touching. They paused and looked at each other, taking in the details of each other’s faces. He looked at the freckles on her nose and just below her eyes and drank at the well of her blue eyes. He reached his hand out and rubbed the side of her face, his thumb tracing the line from her nose to her lips and across the bottom of her lip. They kissed again, this time with more confidence, lips pressed against lips, their mouths slowly opening and touching tongues. The dams of uncertainty broke then and they let go and just lived for the moment. This is what Bran was talking about earlier, living life to its fullest. Enjoying each touch, each caress, and each kiss like it was his last. He didn’t want to know that he would live to a hundred and cheapen the moment, to not have it mean as much, because it’s just one in a string of such moments. She pinged his cochlear implant and started playing him music, late twentieth century techno pop, which had once again become popular, but it didn’t matter what the music was, it just heightened the mood. She started to send images and video to his HUD, mostly of her dressed in various garments meant to tease and titillate, which they did. Poor Bran was putty in her hands. Bran had finally managed to divert his eyes away from the various visual stimuli and pay attention to the red flashing reminder in the upper right hand corner of his HUD, telling him that their five minutes had turned into nearly thirty. He managed to peel himself away from her, muttering that they should go back downstairs. Bran shouldn’t have been surprised when they got downstairs, with their lips red and numb from kissing for the past half hour, that Thom and Jen were sitting on the sofa, their lips pressed together, their arms entwined around each other’s bodies like the antlers of two combating elks, but for some reason it caught him totally off guard. Bran cleared his throat in an attempt to subtly end this awkward situation, and then less subtly he pinged Thom, <Dude, get a room!> Thom and Jen scrambled to their feet, red faced, red lipped, looking for all the world like two little kids that had just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Bran quickly eased the embarrassment with a warm smile and a hearty laugh. “I guess we weren’t the only ones,” he said, while giving Sarah a sheepish grin. “It’s almost midnight; we should be getting back to your mother’s house, Thom.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Thom said as he helped Jen up off of the sofa. Two weeks later, Bran and Sarah made love in her bedroom amongst a pile of stuffed animals, teen lust and quivering doubt. Just like their relationship, their lovemaking was over before it really had a chance to begin. Bran had felt as though he had lost something as he drove home. After two weeks of frenzied lust, he had just figured out that their relationship lacked a solid foundation based in friendship, and building a house of commitment on top of a weak foundation is a bad idea. But, god bless him, Bran was determined to make a mansion. Bran finishes up his shift at the store. He logs out, makes sure that everything was secure, locks the door and heads out to catch the last hovertrain to his neighborhood. He has homework to finish before class on Monday. When he gets home, he sits down at his desk in his room and gets to work on his assignments. *** The old man took another drag off of his cigarette, the embers at the tip glowing; brightly cast orange light falls over his face. The young woman looked straight across the table and took in the details of his face, the cracks and the wrinkles, the dark eyes like black pools. He was Asian, with short gray hair that looked as though it had only a fleeting relationship with his comb. He exhaled and began to talk, the smoke slowly leaving his mouth with each word and drifting up towards the ceiling where it gathered like incoming storm clouds. The young woman hung on every word as the old man told her what her future was going to be. “When you are twenty-five you will meet the man that you will marry.” He carried out along these lines until he had told her about her entire life, from the moment that she walked out of his kitchen, past the lines of waiting people, all the way until her death. *** Bran was never that good of a student. Not that he wasn’t smart; he was in fact smart, smarter than most of his teachers. School for Bran was just someplace that he had to go, so he tried to occupy himself the best he could. He would sometimes write stories or read, but most of the time he would play video games. One day in late spring Bran sat in his Government class pretending to pay attention, but on his HUD he was leading an army of orcs into battle. He was about to declare victory when a message popped up on his email. He didn’t recognize the sender so he sent out some bots to investigate. You can never be too careful, especially when dealing with wetware. He’d heard horror stories about people who had gotten their brains fried by some malicious bug or virus. His bots soon returned to him with the IP. The email had originated in this room. He looked up the address. It was for a Griet Williams. Bran had spent almost a full semester in that room and could hardly name three people besides the teacher. Everybody had just assumed that he was rude and stuck up,
but he actually was introverted and suffered from depression and anxiety. Even though Bran’s halo monitored his brain activity and administered the proper medications, he hated the way that the meds made him feel, so he would usually run a little hack that he had created that would fool the halo into thinking he was operating properly. If he knew he was going to have to endure a high anxiety situation, like talking to people, or going to a party or something, he wouldn’t run the hack. Today was turning out to be one of those days that he wished he hadn’t run the program. Bran ran an image search and found a picture of Griet. She had long blond hair that went down to the middle of her back and hung in ringlets with short bangs that hung down to her eyes. Her eyes were blue and sparkled like diamonds. He recognized her as soon as he saw the picture. She was beautiful, and she was sitting right behind him. “Why in the hell is she emailing me?” Bran thought. Before he could stop himself he tried to sneak a glance backwards at her, then thought against that and turned back to the front of the room. Bran turned red, then his blush deepened several shades when he heard her giggle. He opened the email. “OMG this guy is so boring! I can’t take it anymore. I found your blog last night and I gotta say, I love your writing. I’ve sat behind you all year and I never knew that you were so talented.” Bran was now a deep shade of crimson. He tried to bury his face into his chest, because if Griet saw him he would go all the way from crimson to maroon. After a couple of minutes he composed himself enough to hit the reply button, and then stared at the blank screen for a minute. He was stuck; he didn’t know what to say. He wanted to be witty and funny, but all he could think to say was thanks, which just sounded lame to him. All other potential responses revolved around the fact that she could have just talked to him earlier and she would have known. But that, he thought, would have been rude and he didn’t want to be rude. After all, someone in this God forsaken class had actually spoken to him. He really didn’t want to blow it now with some rude comment so he just ended up saying thanks along with an embarrassed-looking smiley face. He hesitated for a minute before clicking the send button. His heart was pounding in his chest as he found the courage to send the reply. He felt a twinge of guilt. He did after all, have a girlfriend, and for some reason he felt as thought talking to this girl was akin to cheating or something. Bran and Sarah had been having problems for quite some time now. Lord only knows how many times they had broken up and gotten back together again. The most recent break up was the most painful so far, mainly because she decided to break up while they were on vacation with her parents. He still had to endure one and a half more days of being with his now exgirlfriend and her family when all he wanted to do was just be away from her. One and a half days of forced smiles and attempts at happiness. And just as soon as he got home and dropped his bags one the floor, before collapsing to the bed, she called him and said that she was sorry and asked if she could she come over. As much as he should have said no,
as hurt as he was from all the things that she said when she told him that she never loved him, when she said that she regretted sleeping with him, when she said all of this and more, he still had that desire to work things out and told her that she was forgiven and that she could come over. Even after all of these indignities and more, after all the self doubt about the relationship, he still couldn’t help but to feel that twinge of guilt. It was only a couple of minutes until he got a response from Griet. “You really are shy, I thought that you were. You don’t have to be afraid of me, I don’t bite.” They emailed each other for the rest of class. Then they spent most of the night talking to each other. All nervousness left Bran after a couple of minutes and the conversation flowed naturally, like the gentle back and forth of a wave. It felt as though they had known each other forever. He’d never been able to talk to someone like this before. There was no pretension, he was just himself, something that he’d never been able to share, and she didn’t laugh or run or call him a freak, she just listened and accepted him for what he was. Over the weeks and months that followed, they were always together. To Bran he had found himself a best friend; to Bran’s girlfriend he had found a mistress. Sarah believed that Bran was having an affair, or was on the verge of it. Bran, however, was committed to Sarah and the thought of cheating on her never crossed his mind. One day Bran went to Griet’s house to work on a project for class, or at least that’s what they said they were going to do. Instead they spent most of the evening sitting on the sofa watching TV and talking. After a while they started to ignore the television and focused entirely on each other and finally it hit Bran that he did have feelings for her. They stared deeply into each other’s eyes. Had it been any other situation, he would have leaned in and kissed her. He had to put a stop to this. “Griet,” he said, “I can’t do this. I’m in love with someone else, and so are you.” “I know,” she said, “but it’s just that I really like you. We could make this work out.” “I know, but I can’t. I’m in a relationship and I’m not going to destroy it.” “Okay, I can respect that, but you’re not happy in your relationship. You’ve said so yourself. “I can’t, I just can’t. I’m sorry.” Things between them were weird for a couple of days, but they valued their
friendship enough that they soon got over the initial awkwardness and they settled back into their friendship closer than ever. Things with Sarah began to take a turn for the worse though. She was convinced that Bran was cheating on her. Despite his confirmation and reassurances that he was faithful, she would never let it go. The true test of their relationship came in June. Bran’s mother was being transferred by her current employer to one of their other locations in another state. Bran, having lived in Colorado all of his life, wasn’t too keen on picking up and moving to another state. Especially since he had finally settled in here. To make matters worse, he was going to fail one of his classes and needed to make it up in summer school. So things were kind of up in the air as to whether or not he would be returning. He had made tentative plans to stay with Thom at his mother’s house, but that wasn’t set in stone yet and he could end up not returning to Colorado at all. He tired to pack as much life as he could into the next couple of weeks. He was leaving his girlfriend and his best friend and the only life that he had known behind. On his last night in town he had plans to say goodbye to both Sarah and Griet. First he went to pick up Griet to get something to eat. His outing with Griet was fun. They laughed and talked, they had a tickle fight. When it was time to go, their parting was bittersweet. She gave him a present; it was two stuffed bears holding hands. With much crying and hugging and several false starts they parted ways. Bran felt like he was really losing something as he drove off. In contrast his last evening with Sarah could have been considered boring. She was cold and distant and when they said their goodbyes, it didn’t feel as heartfelt as it should have. *** When the old man finished telling the young girl her future, she hurriedly ejected the tape and ran out of the building. She drove as fast as she could to her house, to listen to the tape again. After having heard it several times, she understood it and knew what steps she had to take. The old man said that she would meet the one that she would marry when she was twenty-five so obviously she was wasting time with her current boyfriend, which was fine with her. She thought that he was nice and everything, but something just didn’t feel right. Besides he was a struggling writer and upon reflection, his stories were not that good, he’d probably never amount to much. She believed so greatly in the old man’s fortune that she took it as truth, so blinded was she that she never stopped to think that the old man could have been a huckster (for that is what he was.) So based upon his false words she set about destroying her life. She broke up with the writer, who would later improve his craft and write some of the greatest
works of literature that had ever been created, and who was meant to be her one true love. Because of this charlatan, she married the man who would later father her only child, solely due to the fact that she meets him when the old man said that she would. He turned out to be abusive and violent. By the time that she realized the error of her ways, it was almost too late. But she came up with a plan to escape her torturous husband and steal away in the night, through the darkness and shadows, to a new life, just her and her son. He is all that mattered to her now. *** While Bran was helping his mother settle in, he spent the time talking to Griet, talking to Sarah and pining for home. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder; but Bran never really understood this until now. While he was away from home, his love for Sarah grew, and he missed her with every thought and every breath. He could hardly wait until he returned. He pictured it every night in his dreams. He would get off of the airbus and walk down into the reception area and then he would see Sarah, he would run to her and they would hug each other as if their lives depended on it and then they would kiss each other right there in the middle of the crowd, ignoring the masses of teaming bodies, to them there would be no one in the building but them, the entire port slipping and sliding away into the mire. When he finally returned the reality was very different. When he arrived at the skyport he saw her and walked to her ready to hug her and kiss her, but instead of offering affection she just grabbed his hand, gave it a squeeze and led him off to the baggage claim. It felt awkward and plain, and took Bran aback. He hadn’t seen Sarah in over two weeks, and he was lucky to be returning. It was only because Thom’s mother was kind enough to take him in for the next couple of months that he was able to come home at all, and now that he’s here and they have at least another three months together you’d think that she’d show a little emotion, but she was cold and distant. Bran didn’t know how to feel. Sarah took Bran to his new home and dropped him off so that he could settle in before their date later that night. She gave him only a chaste kiss before she sped off. As soon as she was gone and Bran was shown to his new room, he pinged Griet on her cochlear. She sounded so excited to hear from him, which already was a greater homecoming than Sarah had given him. “I missed you,” she said. “I really can’t wait to see you again.” “I missed you too,” Bran replied. “You maybe want to stop by in about half an hour
so I can see you again, or are you going to keep me waiting? Because I for one can’t wait to see you again.” “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Bran was sitting on the porch waiting when Griet arrived. She got to the house and hurried out of the car and ran to Bran. They hugged in the middle of the yard, and something changed inside of Bran. He realized that this is the kind of relationship that he wanted, this is what he had hoped that his relationship with Sarah would turn into, but he could never turn Sarah into something that she wasn’t, he could never change her. He pulled back from Griet’s embrace just enough to look her in the eye. The sat there with their arms around each other’s waists staring into each other’s eyes just smiling and contented. Bran had made up his mind. After Griet left, he went upstairs and patched in a vidfone call to Sarah. “Sarah, there’s something that I have to tell you, but I don’t really know how to say it other than to just blurt it out.” “It’s okay Bran, you can tell me.” “Well it’s just that things between us haven’t been working out all that well lately and I don’t think that we should see each other any more. We both want different things out of a relationship. I think that we are both on different planets, just look at how far apart we were from each other this afternoon. I mean, I missed you while I was away, I really did and when I finally got home I got a lukewarm reception. I want more than that. I need more than that.” It was hard for Bran to say all of these things, but he knew that they were true and they needed to be said. He had worked so hard to stay with her, it didn’t feel right to just give up, but he had seen his path this afternoon when he looked into Griet’s eyes. He really hated not to do this in person, but he felt that if he waited to long or saw her in person, he would lose his nerve, he needed to be steadfast in his resolve. She seemed to take this news better than he thought she would. There were some tears shed, by both of them, but as they kept on talking, the better they felt about it, or at least that was the impression that Bran was getting from her. Later on that night he pinged Griet. “Hey Griet, how are you doing?” “I’m okay, not too much has changed since the last time we spoke, which was what, two maybe three hours ago? I mean other than growing that second head that I always wanted.”
“Ha ha, you’re funny. I was calling you for a reason, other than just missing you.” “Oh, really? What would that be?” “I was wondering if maybe you wanted to go out to dinner and a movie or something tomorrow.” “Oh, that’s rich. Ye of no car wants to take me out.” “Who needs cars when you have friends and public transportation?” “So now I’m just a friend with a car. You really know how to make a girl feel special.” “I’ll make it special. Besides I have a surprise for you.” “Oh now my interest is piqued, I’ll pick you up around seven.” She picked him up the next evening and they made their way towards the movie theater. She looked more beautiful than ever, or maybe it was because Bran’s eyes were finally open that he finally noticed. She had her hair pulled back from her face and tied up with a simple pink ribbon, she wore organic cotton shorts that stopped mid thigh and showed off her legs and a simple white t-shirt. Afterwards Bran could hardly tell you one detail about the movie, but he could tell you that partway through, he reached over and took Griet’s hand in his and spent the rest of the movie running his fingers over every bump and every ridge of her hand so much so that he knew those details better than the movie. After the movie they went to a park near Thom’s house. There was a winding path around some trees and a nice empty field that during the day was used for soccer and baseball games, but this evening Bran and Griet were the only ones there. They walked around hand in hand for a little while, then found their way to the field. They found a nice little place to sit, and they sat quietly for a while. Bran looked up at the sky. He had always had a fascination with the night sky. Griet noticed were Bran was looking. “Aren’t they beautiful?” “Yes they are,” he replied “look there, that’s the big dipper.” He pointed up to it and traced the outline of it with his finger. They lay down on the grass and looked skyward. Bran rolled over onto his side and put his arm on Griet’s stomach. They lay there for a while looking into each other’s eyes. Slowly their mouths found their way towards each other’s. They kissed, slowly and softly; the pounding of their hearts the only noise they could hear. He hovered over her mouth before leaning in and kissing her again. This time they opened their mouths, each of their tongues darting around, unsure of what to
do, then finding the way. Griet stopped. She looked up at Bran, “What about Sarah?” she asked. “Don’t worry about her. I broke up with her yesterday.” “For me?” she asked. “I broke up with her because it was the right thing to do, because I finally came to the conclusion that you are the one I want. Not her.” She reached up and grabbed his shirt, pulling him toward her and kissing him with every ounce of passion she had. He had never felt anything like it before. “What about your boyfriend?” he asked. “I broke up with him while you were out of town.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I don’t know.” She thought for a minute before continuing. “I guess I just didn’t want you to think that I did it for the wrong reasons.” “What were the right reasons?” “I wasn’t in love with him.” “And the wrong reasons?” “You. I didn’t want you to think that I did it for you.” “But you’re in my arms now.” She reached up and hit him in the chest, a little harder than intended, but lightly enough for him to know that she was kidding. It didn’t stop him from milking it for all it was worth. “Ouch! That hurt!” He managed to get that out between fits of laughter. “Oh, come here you big baby,” she said as she leaned in close and kissed his chest. “All better?” “You know, now that you mention it I do have a bit of pain right here on my lip.” She reached up and put her hand behind his head, then pulled him toward her and kissed his lip. A little while later Bran happened to glance up and his HUD and caught the
time. It was getting late, and he had to go. She drove him back to Thom’s house and they sat in the car for a while, kissing and talking and basking in the warm glow of their newfound love. In the weeks and months that followed they were rarely apart. When they were separated they were either sleeping or communicating through their neural networks. Everything that was missing in his relationship with Sarah, he found with Griet. She made him happier than he’d ever been. He lived for Griet, she was the last thing on his mind before he went to sleep and the first thing he thought of in the morning. She was his reason to get out of bed. He had thought that he was in love with Sarah, but that was nothing compared to this. He felt for Griet with every fiber of his being. Everything was going along wonderfully until the day Griet decided to have the talk. The talk that they should have had a long time ago, the talk that they could have had numerous times since, the talk that they should have had before Bran had fallen hopelessly in love. They were at the same park where they shared their first kiss. They came back to this spot often. To them it was magical. They walked around the park with their arms around each other. Occasionally they would stop and hug, or kiss, or he would tickle her and run off with her in close pursuit. They stopped and sat on a bench, holding each other’s hands and staring off into the distance. Bran looked at the far away mountains and marveled at how clear they looked. He remembered when he was a kid, before the green revolution really took hold, the pollution would be so bad that you could hardly see them. He was lost in thought, just enjoying the moment, when Griet turned to him and asked. “How are you going to die?” His heart sank. He took a deep breath and finally he said it: “I don’t know.” The words seemed to hang in the air. He looked at her, trying to gauge her reaction, but she just sat there for a moment, not moving or saying a word. “You’ve never had your blood tested?” “No, I could never bring myself to do it.” “Why not?” She had let go of his hand and sat next to him with her elbows resting on her knees and her hands under her chin, staring off into the distance. “When my mother was about my age she went to see a psychic. He was supposed to really have the gift, you know. She had heard all of these stories about how great he was and how the things he said were true.
“Anyways, she saw this guy and he told her future. She was so sure it was the truth that as soon as she left the psychic’s place she broke up with her then boyfriend. She later married my father, who turned out to be abusive. “She ruined her life because of some fortune teller. She made her life and my childhood hell because of it. “I promised myself that I would never let myself fall into the same trap. I promised that if someone came to me waving my future in my face, I’d run the other way, because I would rather live in the undiscovered country of the future, than live in a false present.” Griet turned toward Bran and took his hand in both of hers, and looked deeply into his eyes. Her eyes were big and wet and looked like they were on the verge of tears. “But if your mother didn’t leave her boyfriend, then you would never have been born. You’ve got to understand that even though it looks bad, it happened for a reason. It happened to give the world you.” “And if it would have meant not having to live though the hell…“ “Stop it!” She stood up suddenly, her hands at her side, clinching them into little fists; her eyes were full of tears. He reached out both of his hands and put them on her wrists. “I’m telling you how I felt then. I’m trying to tell you why I made the decision that I made. Yes, I hated my childhood and I had weak moments when I wished that I had never been born. Like when I would see my father beating my mother, I would have gladly given my life up to make her not endure that. “But things have changed. I found you. You’re my dog star. I’m locked in orbit around you until the day I die. I love you more than anything, but I can’t leave the shadows of the past behind. “I see people every day who’ve gotten the test, and have been told that their life will be short. Everyday people come into my store to buy lucky charms and amulets, trying to keep death away. I see them all the time and they aren’t people, they are shells, their lives are ruined. They spend second of every day looking around the corner for some shadowy cloaked figure to take them to their afterlife. “I can’t do that, I can’t be that person. I want to live my life to its fullest; I don’t want to die, only to realize that I never lived. Each day with you is a wonder, and I’m thankful for it, because I know that tomorrow you could be gone.” He looked away and let go of her wrist. He dabbed at his eyes with the back of his
hand. He was afraid. Afraid of where this conversation was going, he had a feeling he knew, and it felt heavy in his stomach like a lead weight. Griet sat back down and stared off into the distance. She drew in a deep breath, and then she seemed to close in on herself like she was being drawn into a black hole. “When I was younger, my father died suddenly. I remember it so clearly. He went to stand up, and his legs seemed weak and shaky. Then when he did stand, his body looked like it was waving, like the last leaf on a branch in autumn. When he crumpled to the floor like a pile of leaves, he was dead. He’d had a stroke. I never got to say goodbye to him.” She trailed of at the end, her thoughts lost in the past. Her voice was thin and shaky. “I can’t go through that again,” her voice found more strength. “I can’t lose someone so close to me again. It’s too hard, and it doesn’t have to happen.” “So you would rather turn your back on love and gamble instead on longevity? You would rather end up like my mother, passing up true love for something else?” He regretted the words as they spilled out of his mouth and hit her like a ton of bricks. “I don’t know, I don’t, I…” She crumpled like a piece of paper. “I need time to think, I need to go home.” “Okay, look, I’m sorry, I…” They walked back to the car, a thousand miles away from each other. The drive back to Thom’s house was long and quiet. Bran got out of the car and watched Griet speed off into the night. *** They spent the next couple of days apart from each other. They did a lot of soul searching before Griet called Bran again. They agreed to meet up later on that evening at a coffee shop they often frequented. It had a nice porch with a wonderful view of the mountains during the day and an even better view of the night sky in the evening. Bran got there first. He managed to find a nice quiet table in the corner of the patio, where they wouldn’t be disturbed. He looked up at the stars. The night was clear and you could see millions of stars twinkling in the ether. If you looked closely you could see the occasional satellite orbiting around the earth. He watched Canis Major make its nightly run across the firmament. He sipped his tea and waited. While he waited he thought about everything that he had been through the past year or so. He thought about finding love then loosing love, then finding true love, all the while not knowing if he would be able to live here or move back to live with his mother. He had just found out that Thom and his family were moving, and with them his current
home. He hadn’t told Griet yet, and with all that they were going through, he didn’t know if she would stick around long enough for it to matter. God how he hated the machine and how it had changed the world, he longed for the old days when people just trusted in fate. He was so scared that this machine would cost him the love of his life. For whether he got the test or not the odds were good that he would loose her either way. Griet arrived a few minutes later. She went to the counter and got herself a cup of tea, then found her way over to Bran’s table and sat across from him. They sat for a minute just looking into each other’s eyes, neither one of them really knowing where to begin. Finally Bran found the courage to speak. “How are you?” “I’m okay I guess, considering the circumstances.” Her eyes looked like they were holding back a flood of tears. “I wish that things were better.” “I wish that we could go back to last week.” “Yea, but I need to be realistic. I need to know that if I give my heart to you fully that you will be there to grow old with me.” “Isn’t just knowing that I’ll be here tomorrow and the next day enough?” “I told you. I can’t.” “So you would let some stupid test get in the way of love? Because I love you, I truly do, and I would rather die next week knowing that I had given you everything, that I had loved you as much as I could, than to just walk away now.” “I can’t put myself and whatever children we may or may not have through what I went through, it’s unfair.” “And it’s really unfair to me.” Bran was angry and he could feel it. He loved this girl so much and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, no matter how long, and here she was just willing to throw it all away. They were both the ghosts of their parents. Bran looked up at the Milky Way and felt as though he were standing at the edge of an event horizon. He felt the black hole of the future pulling at him. He was afraid that if he looked at his hand he would see it pulled up and around the singularity’s edge. The only thing that was keeping him from falling in was Griet. She was his anchor, his life support and the thought of loosing her was too much for him. Then, under the stars and the mountains, with Bran’s life seeming to fall apart all around him, the stress finally got to him. All the stress of his relationship falling apart, the
stress of not knowing how much longer he was going to even be able to stay here with Griet, it all became too much for him. His body and soul collapsed, he gave himself up to the black hole. His chest started to hurt. It felt as though someone had kicked him, he reached for his chest, tried to stand up, but ended up falling. Griet saw him fall in what seemed like slow motion. She could tell immediately that something was seriously wrong. “Oh, my God, Bran!” She ran to his side to check if he was okay, “Please, someone call an ambulance.” She kneeled down next to him and put his head in her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair and tried to be strong for him. She tried her best to be reassuring. He was weak; he looked up at her and with every last ounce of strength he reached up and grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She felt something in his hand, and sensing that he had just spent most of his energy trying to give it to her, she knew that it must be important. She took it but slipped it in her pocket. It could wait. Taking care of him was what mattered here. She took his hand again, and leaned forward to kiss his forehead. With his other hand he reached up and put his hand on the back of her neck. He wanted to keep her there, keep her close. He had something to say and he wanted to make sure that she heard it. He leaned in as close as he could and said. “I love you Griet, more than anything. I loved you right from the beginning.” At that, she started crying uncontrollably, she kissed him all over his face and tried to hold him as close as she could. “I know, baby, I love you too. Don’t worry you’ll be okay. We’ll have forever together, I promise.” Bran had lost all of his strength and closed his eyes. She was still holding him when the paramedics arrived. They quickly and efficiently began to load him up onto the stretcher, to wheel him onto the ambulance, all the while performing CPR on him. Griet sat in the rig with them. She could barely see Bran, but there was just enough room for her to reach upwards and hold his hand in hers. The ER was an eternity of hand compressions, a breathing tube, several rounds of epinephrine and attempts with the defibrillator. But it was all in vain. Bran was finally declared dead. Griet was completely devastated. She let out a scream and began sobbing and screaming. She couldn’t believe that he was gone. She ran to his body, with the tubes still hanging out of his mouth and his shirt still cut open and held him. She held him as tight
as she could, she couldn’t bear to let go. It was too sudden, too soon. The doctor stood behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said “I did everything that I could. The x-rays showed a bulging of the left ventricular apex. His heart had suddenly become too weak to work correctly. I believe he may have had a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome.” The last three words cut Griet to her very soul. Broken heart syndrome. Could she have caused this, was she at fault? The doctor stayed for a bit, reassuring her, but the seed was firmly planted in Griet’s mind. Her mother showed up and tried their best to calm her down, but nothing seemed to work. She couldn’t bring herself to leave Bran’s body. She knew that she would never again be able to hold him and laugh with him. She couldn’t let go of him. Her mother finally got her to leave after the hospital gave her something to calm her nerves, but it just made her feel like a zombie. She was on her way out to the car with her mother when she remembered her last moments with Bran and how he had slipped something into her hand. She reached into her pocket and took out the object. It was a small ribbon of paper. In neat block lettering it said simply, BROKEN HEART.