She had her earplugs in to keep from hearing their voices
Her sunglasses were as dark as she could stand without losing sight of the ground in front of her. Her hair was covered in a patterned scarf. She wore a pencil skirt, along with a jacket and tights to keep off the winter cold, or what was left of it. There was a book underneath her arm.
She had dressed to escape their eyes. But it didn’t matter. It rarely did. No matter how much she varied her footpath, or wore different clothes, or cussed them out, they followed her still.
They were advertising drones. And they were everywhere.
There was a holo-ad, planted during the night, that screamed about a new horror show available for streaming. She sidestepped the hologram coming out of the ground, her flats clicking lightly on the concrete.
A swarm of three small drones above her hovered lazily, kept aloft by buzzing electric engines. They tried to scan her eyes. None could; her glasses were too thick, and the scarf wrapped around her head obfuscated her features. One called out about a love story; the other about a new restaurant, a brewery, opening downtown. The third projected an ad for a new cereal bar, shelf stable for the prepper in your family.
As soon as she crossed the street, the drones stopped following her. There was no noise, no music, no distractions at the library. It had the same grand look it had a century ago, all carved stone and and Greek patterns.
She dropped the book in the slot to her right as she came in through the wide wooden doors. A young man came in behind her as she took off her scarf and her glasses, and removed the plugs from her ears.
There were bits of chatter now: strollers working their way through the halls, pages flipping between book bindings, footfalls on the noise-deadened carpets. She could hear them all without tinnitus, a rarity among people her age.
She breathed. She made her way up to the sixth floor on the staircase. Her legs were used to the climb.
A librarian stood at the desk in front of her as she came up the stairs. He looked up from his work. “Hiya Amara,” he said brightly. “You finish The Iron Heel?”
“Yeah, I did,” she said. “I still don’t understand why you like Jack London so much. He’s stilted.”
“Ach,” said the librarian, clutching his heart. “You’re killing me.”
Amara folded her arms across her chest. “I gave him a good shot, dude,” she said, trying not to sound defensive. “I did like The Mexican.”
“Ha! That’s his best!” said the librarian, who quickly recognized how loud he was being. He spoke more softly. “Well, you got any recommendations for me?”
“Feast of the Mad,” said Amara. “I just finished it. Trust me, you’ll love it.”
The librarian began clicking madly into the catalog computer in front of him. “Oh, this looks interesting. Thanks. You know me too well.”
“If you don’t like it, we can’t be friends anymore.”
“I’m sure,” said the librarian. “Well, let me know if you need anything.”
“Just shoot down those ad drones they got out there, if you can. They make everything so shitty. It’s like you can’t even walk outside anymore.”
“We can keep them out of library airspace, but there’s not much else we can do.” The librarian sighed. “The new scarf work out for you?”
“Nope. Useless, like all the rest.”
“Ach, well, keep trying. One of them is bound to work. Just don’t start hanging out on rooftops with crossbows, ok?”
Amara waved goodbye and went into the stacks. She pulled a book that looked interesting off the shelf when she noticed a young man standing next to her with a close-trimmed beard. She tried to sneak a look at what he was reading, but caught his eyes instead.
It was the young man who’d come in behind her.
She turned away embarrassed, going back to her book, though her eyes darted up from the pages nervously. She saw him sit down to read at the end of the stacks. Her eyes took him in. She knew she was staring, but she couldn’t help it.
He was lean, with hair that was going a bit gray, just enough to make him look distinguished. He wore a pair of circle-framed glasses that kept coming down off his nose.
They both sat at their tables reading for awhile. She kept trying to concentrate on the book, but couldn’t. Her stomach protested its emptiness, or maybe it was butterflies.
Before long, the man had turned around. He smiled at her. “Hey,” he said. “You hungry?”
“I could be.”
He introduced himself as Philo.
They walked and chatted. Amara put her sunglasses on when she walked outside, but didn’t replace her headscarf. The drones took notice, and so did the holo-ads, but she didn’t care as much.
“So, what are you in for?” said Philo.
“What am I in for? That’s a weird question,” she said.
“Well, I try to get away from the whole ‘what do you do’ thing. It’s a class marker, you know?”
Amara’s eyebrow raised up. “Never thought of it that way.”
“Sure, think about it. Anytime somebody asks you what you do, they size you up, seeing if they need to pay attention to what you’re saying. It’s like they’re trying to find out if you matter.”
“I totally get that.”
The pizza place Philo had chosen was in a basement. Its black walls were painted without much care. There were bits of neon, a few old posters, and a bar with well liquor and half-hearted taps. The bartender gave Philo a nod as they entered. They sat in a half-lit booth in the back.
In the booth, there was a flatscreen on the wall, which glowed with the menu. But as soon as they sat, the menu was replaced with a tropical scene of cool, clear water and warm daylight. It seemed brighter, better, than any part of the city.
“Cool,” said Amara, nodding toward the picture.
“Oh, you like it?”
“Seems better than here, for sure. I could go for an ocean breeze, now that it’s cold as hell.”
Philo laughed, a bit of nervousness in his voice. “I could do with getting out of here too. Somewhere warm. Somewhere where worry is just far away.”
Amara leaned forward, a bit pleased. The idea that she could make someone nervous wasn’t something that occurred to her. “Corny,” she said. “But I like it.
They talked for a long time, the rest of the day flying by. Amara thought that it was a good first date, as far as first dates go.
When the time came for them to part ways, Philo took out his phone. “You on Tesseract?” he said.
“No, sorry,” she said, embarrassed.
“Maybe, Thunderbolt?” He smiled. “Running out of platforms here.”
“Nope, nothing. But you can have my number.”
Philo looked oddly disappointed. “Well, looks like I’ll have to get to know you the old fashioned way.”
They walked off into the night that buzzed with insects and bright lights in the darkness.
Amara thought about him nonstop that night. She thought about his nervous hands, his silly looking glasses. She was ecstatic when he texted the next day.
They went feather bowling, a kind of lawn bowling where the players rolled wooden wheels near a feather sticking out of a dirt. They played underneath old tin ceilings. Amara liked it. It was cheap, and it helped that she was good enough to give Philo a beating every other round.
They made their way back into the bar after their time had finished. When they sat down, one of the screens flashed the same scene from the pizza place: fresh beach, cool water, and beautiful people under a blue sky. But now it only flashed for a second, making her question whether or not she’d seen it again at all.
Walking back to their cars, an ad drone came down, blaring about a party a few blocks down. “Jesus, these things are everywhere.”
“They’re just drones, Amara.”
Amara gave the drone the finger. “But they’re buzzing in my face every day! I’m having a good time tonight, and they’re trying to get me to spend money on some fucking garbage I don’t need that’ll make me feel like shit!” She raised the other finger for a double fisted salute. “Fuck off!” Then, she realized what she was saying. “You aren’t, uh, in advertising, are you?”
“Drone ads?” he laughed. “No way. More importantly, I did hear you say you were having a good time.”
“I was,” she said. “I, you know, I am.”
Coming home at the end of the night, Amara wanted to write in her diary, like she did when she was a girl. She decided that it was childish and stupid. Then she said “Fuck it,” and wrote about him anyway.
He said he wanted to meet the next night at a little dive place. She tried her best to look attractive before she left, trying to move parts into some sort of attractive configuration. Feeling antsy, she cleaned up the house, in case Philo wanted to come over that night. She didn’t want him thinking she was a slob.
“You from here?” said Philo, over his drink.
“Nah, but I’ll be here for at least a while. I bought a house a little while ago,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, for what I could afford, but it sure as shit beats renting.”
“Oh, I know,” said Philo.
“You have a house?” she said, trying to move the conversation along.
“Oh no way. Terrible investment. Growth potential is all screwed up in real estate.” An odd look came over his face, and he said: “I meant, you know, it beats renting. Must’ve been hard, saving all that money.”
“You have to start out lucky, that’s for sure. You also have to not buy much for a long time. The library definitely helps.”
“You must have a great credit score. What are you, like a 780?”
Amara eyed him. “I don’t know. I never looked it up, actually.”
“You can turn a good credit score into some really cool experiences, you know?”
Amara didn’t quite know what to make of this. She looked down at her hand, which was now cradled in his. “Uh, sure. Right.”
“Hey,” said Philo. “Remember when we first met? You said you wanted to go away? Get out of here?”
She could feel her cheeks turning red, in spite of herself. “Sure. Sure I do.”
“Well, what if I told you that you could? What if I told you that you really could go somewhere where worry is far away?”
Against her better judgment, she said: “What do you mean?”
“Have you ever heard of a timeshare? It’s ownership, without the hassle of owning. They take care of everything for you.”
Amara’s head swam.
“You can buy time in Key West, the Azores, or the Bahamas. Everything is all inclusive too, depending on the plan you buy,” said Philo. “All you need is a good credit score and some tangible assets like your house. I can get you a great deal, really.” He massaged the back of her hand. “A little debt, that’s no problem. Nothing you can’t handle, Amara.”
“It sounds… really good,” she said. Her chest felt hollow.
“I knew you’d agree. I knew when we met, you would. I’ve got all the paperwork right here.” He produced a tablet, seemingly out of nowhere. “This is the deal of a lifetime for you.”
“Hey, I’ve, uh, got to go to the ladies room. Real quick,” she got up from the table, her head going in all sorts of different directions.
Philo took hold of her wrist, lightly but firmly, as she stood. “Amara, don’t let this moment pass you by.”
“Oh, I won’t,” she said.
She walked into the bathroom, and closed the door behind her. She wanted to scream.
It all came together in her head: Him, following her through the double doors; Him, with the book she’d recommended at the library; Him, making the images pop up on screens.
She pulled out her phone. She typed in the words: ‘Where worry is far away’.
The first hit was the site for ‘Zori Timeshares.’ Its tagline was ‘Go to a Place Where Worry is Far Away.’
The screens in the bathroom, the ones displaying ads for events and happy hours, began to flicker.
To her horror, they transformed into the beach scene, the same one she’d seen in the pizza place, the same one she’d seen at the feather bowling alley. They all blared the tagline in bright, pulsing colors.
The bathroom window, she recognized, was just big enough for her to fit through.
Its handle, she felt, was loose enough to turn.