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Fiction – “Presence” by Barbara Ann Wright

The alarm had a pleasant buzz, almost as if the store was clearing its throat. The sliding doors slipped shut in front of Huang, locking him and fifteen other people in the foyer of the Omni Superstore. “Attention, valued shoppers,” a soothing, feminine voice said over the non-alarming alarm, “please remain still as your Radio Frequency IDs are scanned. Security personnel are en route to help you continue your day. Omni Superstore thanks you for your patronage.”

As his brain tried to process what was going on, Huang felt the barest hint of cold coming from his left windbreaker pocket. A similar cold settled in his gut as he remembered. He’d been saying, “Tuna, bread, shampoo, sponges,” over and over in his head, trying not to forget as he gathered every item, ignoring the talking displays that hooted and called from the store’s various surfaces. And on the way out, he’d seen the ice cream and thought, ‘Why not? I did an extra lap at the gym today.’

The freezer had scanned his RFID implant, no doubt searched his medical records and had suggested, “Brennon’s Low Fat Frozen Yogurt, on sale today for only $6.50 a pint!” He’d glared at the case and grabbed his usual fudge ripple. It had been so cold that he’d stuck it in his pocket while he tried to juggle everything.

The jacket’s insulation had protected him through check-out, but the cold had finally touched his side. He passed his grocery bag to his right hand and slowly stuck the left into his pocket, touching the forgotten, unpaid for ice cream and jerking back as if it were a bleeding heart.

The other people trapped between the two sets of doors glanced at each other and shrugged. The usual soft electronic babble of voices asking shoppers if they’d like a cart or were interested in a soda had fallen silent. Security personnel arrived to a quiet room, the doors hissing open to admit five officers before snapping shut again.

Huang knew it was foolish to think they might not spot him, but he held onto the thought even as one approached, machine gun slung around his black-clad, armored frame. A helmet covered his hair and the back of his head, leaving his face open.

He read from his PDA with an unimpassioned voice. “Huang Li.”

“Yes,” Huang whispered. Sweat prickled his scalp.

“The store scanners reveal you have some unpaid for merchandise.”

A woman standing a few feet away grabbed the arm of her companion. “A thief! A real criminal!” Both fear and delight shone in her eyes.

Huang took the ice cream out of his pocket. “I didn’t mean…”

The officer took the ice cream and held it out to a colleague, who put it in a little bag labeled EVIDENCE. “You’re going to come with us, Mr. Li. Don’t struggle. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

The officer moved away, and three more took his place. They put Huang’s leaden arms behind his back and zip-tied them. Two of them lifted him by the shoulders while a third tied his ankles. He dangled between their two well-armored forms while the other shoppers stared.

Huang went limp in the officers’ arms. He remembered elementary school and the officers who’d scanned him and his friends, letting them use the zip-ties on one another, laughing as the officers had put them under “arrest.” The two men hauled him and his grocery bag out into the daylight and into the waiting Security Rail.

The train crouched on the tracks like a sleek white animal. Its rounded edges promised speed. Huang had never been inside the Security Rail, didn’t know anyone who had; he stuck to the civilian rails or walked. He swallowed and tried not to pretend that they were taking him into the belly of a giant white worm.

Inside, they hustled him between chairs that lined the rail car, facing in, occupied by five worried citizens and the officers that stood over them, PDAs in hand. The doors slid shut, and the rail started back down the tracks, ever-moving, the whole of the security network right at the populace’s fingertips. It occurred to Huang in that moment that the rail also kept the populace at security’s fingertips. He tried to roll his hands around in their zip-ties.

Every surface was painted the same blank white, as if the entire train were in mourning. Huang briefly wondered if the cars that housed the security officers’ locker rooms or storage facilities were painted the same and if the Asian officers felt they were always riding the funeral train.

The two officers sat him on a plastic seat against one wall, securing his feet to a small ring in the floor. They moved away without a word. Near the exit, someone sneezed, and it echoed like a gunshot above the steady whisk-whisk noise as the rail moved over its track.

Another officer strode over and sat next to him. Huang didn’t want to make trouble, but suddenly, he wanted to make eye-contact. As he looked up at the officer’s face, something inside of him woke up.

She wasn’t a beautiful woman, but she struck him dumb. Her jaw cut down at an angle, but her lips were full. The nose slanted a bit crooked, and the eyes were a deep, soothing brown. Her coloring leaned toward cinnamon. Her legs seemed long, and he guessed she must be six-feet if she was an inch. Dark shadows in her face gave her eyes even more depth, so much that they tried to swallow him whole. Truly, she was a fearsome creature.

“Huang Li,” he said without thinking.

She tilted her head, her mouth slightly askew as if she were amused. “I know who you are, Mr. Li. Your record is spotless, and a review of the cameras has judged your thievery accidental.”

She knelt and slit the zip-ties on his legs, moved closer to get to the ones on his wrists, sticking one long leg out for balance. She pulled him to his feet, and he lifted his head to stare at her. He only called himself five-foot nine if no one had a tape measure handy. She towered over him. He took a deep breath, smelling something slightly sweet but with a woody scent, like honey-roasted pecans.

A chime signaled that the rail was slowing to stop. She handed him his grocery bag. “We’re in your area,” she said. “You might be able to walk without catching another rail.” Stepping back around, she waved a hand at the door.

Massaging his wrists, Huang moved toward the door, watching her move. “If I may ask, what is your name?”

The same tilt and tiny smile. “Officer Taylor, Mr. Li.”

“Huang,” he said, heart fluttering at his own boldness. “The excitement of the whole thing didn’t hit me until now.”

She stepped closer and looked down at him, and he got the impression that she really saw him, that she paid attention. He thought she would warn him against breaking the law again, but she said, “That’s something, I suppose.” With another gesture toward the now open door, she left, and when the door had closed behind him, he felt more captured than he had inside the Security Rail.

Home was only two blocks away. He stopped at a corner store and bought some pecans in a can. When he got home, he peeled off the aluminum seal that kept them fresh. The can informed him that he was not an instant winner, and he breathed deep before sighing. A bit like Taylor’s heady scent, but not the same.

He sat in his home-work cubicle and waited while his computer scanned his RFID and retrieved his work, but he couldn’t focus. His computer reminded him several times that he was below his average speed and sent a note to his boss, labeling his performance as sub-par. Huang played with one of the many desk toys his mother had given him and closed his eyes, trying to seal in Officer Taylor’s memory.

In her walk, her presence, she seemed so alive. Heavily armed and armored, but still like a wild animal ready to pounce. He thought he’d feel safe around her even if she were stark naked, and the thought of her unclothed made him sigh for other reasons.

His entertainment room sprang to life when he entered it. The vid splashed Mood: Pensive across its softly glowing surface before bringing up an old comedy, meant to tickle and relax and turn his mind to gelatin. But Huang’s mind wandered, and when the vid brought up Mood: Romantic/Amorous, it began an erotic film. Huang raised an eyebrow and stared for a moment before shaking his head and getting up. “Off,” he muttered, and the screen went dark. When he walked into the bathroom, the medicine cabinet asked if he’d like an antidepressant in its soft, caring voice.

Huang ignored it and passed his hand under the faucet, triggering the water. He splashed it over his face then watched in the mirror as it rolled down his cheeks, wondering exactly how long it had been since anyone or anything in his life had been unforgettable. He couldn’t even remember his last date’s last name.

Walking back to his home-work cubicle, he hung his phone over his ear. “911.”

“Emergency response.” The operator’s voice sounded clipped, and Huang wondered if it could be a computer.

“This isn’t…uh, it’s not an emergency. I need, well, security personnel?”

There was a pause, and he knew it had to be a human being. A thinking computer would have given him an error message.

“Do you have an emergency, sir? A problem?”

Huang wet his lips. His heart raced, and his temples started to pound. Dimly, he heard the medicine cabinet calling from the bathroom, offering aspirin. “No, no problem. I just need to speak to a, um, Officer Taylor of security. It’s not a problem or anything.”

The operator’s voice lowered, and he heard pity in it. “Are you family?”

“No, I’m… I’m…” He couldn’t finish.

“I’m sorry, sir. Officers can’t receive personal calls unless they’re from a family member or if it’s an emergency.” The line went dead.

Huang took the phone off his ear and stared at it. He wondered if he’d imagined the pity, if it was possible to make two connections in one day. With a sigh, he ordered the lights to dim and went back to work.

The next day, he walked into the Omni Superstore again. He passed the carts as he always did, ignoring the voice that asked him if he would like one. He jumped when an employee stepped out in front of him, the nice woman who always said hello to everyone and who stopped to speak with the elderly or mothers with young children.

“Are you certain you wouldn’t like a cart, Mr. Li?” she asked.

Huang stared. It flashed through his head that he might have a record. They might be on the lookout for the Outlaw Huang Li. His ego bloomed even as his face reddened.

The employee’s smile widened. “Wouldn’t want you to forget anything!” She thrust a cart at him, and he had to take it. Several people glanced sideways as they moved around him. The employee’s smile said it all. Not outlaw, no, the Embarrassing Huang Li. Not a criminal, merely an absentminded doofus.

He took the cart and walked around her, listening to the wheels squeak. He pushed past produce where a display exclaimed, “Bok Choy, $3.99!” It went on to quote a recipe, and Huang imagined he could hear an undercurrent to its bizarrely happy voice, one that said, “If you remember to pay for it, Huang.”

He crossed to the area where produce bled into bakery, the unhealthy ground of powdered doughnuts and processed snack cakes. The scanners gave him a cursory glance, and the display suggested a new fat-free lemon pound cake. Huang stopped and stared, suddenly sick and tired to death of cursory glances: the job which reduced him to output per hour, the police who didn’t even see him, thinking him a docile creature that could be manhandled. Even his appliances tried to push him around.

Officer Taylor had looked at him. She’d taken her eyes off her PDA and fixed them on him.

Huang rubbed the small scar where they’d implanted his RFID so long ago. It saw him as a series of numbers and select marketing. He didn’t eat Bok Choy, and he hated lemons, suspecting he might be slightly allergic to them. As the display offered a slow-motion, seductive view of unwrapped lemon pound cake, the newly awakened part of Huang stood up.

He grabbed a pound cake and left the cart where it stood. He stalked straight past the greeting employee, and by the time the non-alarming alarm went off, he had worked up quite a sweat.

“Please be there, please be there,” he chanted through the scan, the PDA, the zip-ties, telling himself this wasn’t docility, this was choice. As they put him on the rail and into a seat, one of the officers asked, “What is he on about?”

“Search me,” another said. “Maybe he’s off his meds.”

“Officer Taylor!” Huang said, almost shouting, making them look at him, even if they wouldn’t really see. “I need Officer Taylor.”

They stared before shrugging and moving away, their eyes going half-lidded and disinterested. Huang hung his head as hope died.

“Are you turning into a repeat offender, Huang?”

He held his breath before turning toward the voice. Taylor had her arms crossed over her armored chest. “I had to see you,” he said.

She tilted her head. “What?”

“I tried to figure out how to call, but I only knew the emergency number. I think, I mean…” He summoned every ounce of courage that he felt he should have. “I’m in love with you.”

She sat down beside him and turned her head toward the walls and the sound of the rail on its tracks. She licked her lips. “This isn’t my real face.”

Huang blinked as the room seemed to shift around him.

“It’s a projection, like a mask, part of the helmet. We all have to wear them, standard policy. People feel they can speak to real faces, but we can’t show them what we actually look like.” She spoke quickly, flushing, and Huang didn’t know if it was her blush or the mask’s. “It’s a protective thing, see? To keep us from retaliation; at least, that’s what we learn at academy.”

He couldn’t bring himself to ask if she was even a woman. “And the voice?” he whispered.

She didn’t look at him as she shook her head and stood. “This incident has been ruled intentional. If you pay the fine now, you can leave.”

He nodded, and she cut him loose. He used her PDA to put in his bank password and scan his RFID, and it was done. Inhaling deeply, he touched her gloved hand. “The mask can’t do scents?”

She frowned. “No.”

It didn’t seem much to go on, but it was real. “Can I have your number, then?”

The little smile played around her lips. “You’ve no idea what I look or sound like, and you want my number because of the way I smell?”

“Presence. A mask can’t mimic that.”

She rattled off a quick series of numbers. “I go off-duty at nine.”

Huang walked off the rail and to his house, repeating the numbers in his head as he had his grocery list until he got home and could write them down. He worked with one eye on the clock until nine, picturing her changing into civilian clothes and hanging her private phone on her ear. He shut his computer off, and it squawked in protest, but he ignored it, walking through the chattering rooms of his house and out the back door to sit on the small rectangle of concrete that served as his porch.

Huang lay back, folding his arms under his head and looked up at the sky, squinting to see the stars past the lights of his neighborhood. But whether he saw them or not, he knew they were out there. With a deep breath, he hung his phone on his ear and spoke Taylor’s number.


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About the Author

Barbara Ann Wright is a member of Broad Universe and the Writer’s League of Texas and is one of the founders of Writer’s Ink in Houston. Her short story, “Damaged on Every Level”, appeared in the October 2009 issue of Crossed Genres and made Tangent Online’s 2009 recommended reading list. Come visit her at barbaraannwright.wordpress.com.

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