Everything was gray – a spinning gray sky, colossal gray buildings, and gray people in gray suits on their phones going nowhere. On my way to work, I took the dirty, dingy subway where the only thing that wasn’t gray was the glow of everyone’s electronics. Phones, laptops, gaming devices, everyone but me had something in their hands they scrolled, swiped, or typed away at. Trapped with these largely lifeless figures, everything but their fingers and thumbs perpetually motionless, I couldn’t wait to get off the subway each day. Sometimes, I would check my phone, but I never had any texts, emails, or missed calls. Unlike most twenty-two-year-olds, I didn’t have any social media, so there were no likes, comments, or DMs to anticipate.
The walk from the subway station to Ray’s Electronics was one of the loneliest parts of my day. It’s funny how you can live in a city of almost a million people, be surrounded by mobs of gray walking this way or that, and still be so lonely it hurts your chest. I sometimes yearned for anyone to text or call me, to relieve me of my loneliness for just moment, but no text or call ever came. Through the crowd, I noticed a pale man in a dark blue suit who wasn’t on his phone. He stood halfway behind a gray, metal pole, watching me with one green eye. Questioning whether he was really watching me and why, I stared back. The longer I looked into his unflinching eye, the more unsettled I became until I finally blinked. In an instant the man was gone. I hurried to the relative safety of the store.
When I arrived at Ray’s for my shift, there was a boy in a yellow jacket sitting on the bench outside, Razorwire earbuds in his ears, some kind of gaming device in his hands. His mouth was stretched open wide, yellowing teeth exposed, face frozen in time. Whatever game he was playing, he seemed to be enjoying it a little too much. I asked him what he was playing but got no response. Inside, my boss and owner of the store, Mr. Dreason, greeted me.
“Ayla! You’re early as ever, just like I hoped!”
“Good morning, Mister Dreason. How are you today?”
“Much better now that you’re here,” he said with a big smile that was probably meant to make me feel warm but made me anxious.
Everything was big with Mister Dreason, big body, big teeth, big store, big wallet, big TVs on the wall behind him, everything big. Big wasn’t always better, like in the case of smiles. Smiles in general made me uncomfortable, but big, toothy smiles were the worst. He always had one for me.
“I’ve been waiting on you!”
“Oh. Has it been really busy?”
“No, no more than usual. I was just planning to take an early lunch. I gotta get my hands on either the Aspire or the Machina, whichever one, while they last. We couldn’t get either console in, but I’ve got a friend on the inside at Dean’s who said he’d hold one for me. Won’t hold it long, though, so I’ve gotta get going.”
“Goodness! You better run, then.”
“Oh, I plan on it. Can’t say I’m thrilled about handing my money over to a competitor, but it’s for the boys, so compromises have to be made. I hate to leave you by yourself, but you’ll be fine. There’s hardly been anyone this morning, and the signs should keep out anyone looking for a new console.”
“I understand. Have a good lunch!”
“I’ll be back,” he said with a wave, exiting the store.
Over the next hour, not much happened. I helped a few customers, one of whom was furious we had no consoles; swept the floor; and made sure the photo lab was operational. All was normal until I heard my name.
“Ayla,” a feminine voice whispered.
“Huh?” I said confused, looking around the empty store.
“Ayla. Over here.”
It took me a moment to realize the voice was coming from a display monitor next to me. I wasn’t entirely convinced, thinking I must be crazy, until it said my name again.
“Holy shit,” I muttered, backing away into a glass display behind me. “There’s no way that just happened.”
“Don’t be scared. I want to be friends,” the monitor assured me. “Go ahead. Try me out.”
“You’re… really talking to me. I’m not just hearing things. I’m not, am I?”
“Of course not, silly. Why don’t you give me a try? You’ll see you’re not crazy.”
“Well, uh, we’re not busy, so okay.”
Examining the monitor, I reached into the small cage it was locked in and turned it on. I was immediately intrigued. I wasn’t a big computer person, only knowledgeable about them for the sake of my job, but I had to admit there was something enticing about the glow of the display accompanied by the friendliness of the monitor. The longer I engaged with it, the more attached I became.
“Would you buy me? We could be friends forever if you bought me. You’re having fun aren’t you? Imagine how much more phone we could have if you bought me.”
“Friends? But you’re – oh my god you’re over a thousand dollars! I could never-”
“Ayla!” Mr. Dreason exclaimed, his voice causing me to jump away from the monitor.
“Mr. Dreason! I’m sorry! I was just-”
He laughed heartily, carrying in a discretely bagged console.
“No need to apologize. I see the merchandise has finally caught your attention. That’s quite a beaut you’ve got your eyes on,” he explained, approaching the monitor and having a look at it for himself. “That’s the brand-new RX-52: Phantom. Thirty-two-inch curved display, one hundred sixty-five hertz, 4K, built-in speakers, yeah she’s one hell of a monitor. Just got it in the other night while you were off.”
“It spoke to me. Is it supposed to do that?”
“Ha! Afraid you’re hearing voices? Don’t worry. This thing has a built-in AI companion you can turn on or off. You can even change its personality if you like. I thought the AI came switched off, but I guess not.”
“And it can speak to you even when the monitor itself is turned off?”
“Must be able to. So, you want it?”
The idea of paying over a thousand dollars made me recoil hard.
“Me? Oh, I- I love it, but it’s so expensive! I could never afford something like that, even with our discount.”
“Is that so? How about if instead of a twenty-five percent discount, I made it fifty percent for just this purchase?”
“Fifty! But why would you do something like that?”
“Well, it’s simple, really. You’ve been working here for years, Ayla, and you’re one of the best, no, I’d say the best worker I’ve got. You know this place inside and out, yet, even with a good discount, you’ve never bought or shown interest in a single device. In fact, I’ve never seen you so much as look at your phone once, not even while on break.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I guess what I’m getting at is the world moves fast, kid. It’s moving faster all the time. Everything and everyone is interconnected now. Those who can’t keep up, well, they get left behind. I don’t want that to happen to you. You’re young, and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
He gave me a big smile, rubbing the back of his head with his giant, hairy hand.
“Besides, an AI friend could do you some good. I know it’s none of my business, but as your boss I notice things. What I’ve noticed about you is no one ever swings by to say hi to you. You never talk about anyone in your personal life, no stories to share. You don’t check your phone, and maybe this is a reach, because you don’t have any messages. Yeah, I think a virtual friend might be just what you need, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Well, I… certainly appreciate it, but I don’t know. It’s still a lot of money that’d come out of my savings.”
“Ayla, friend,” the monitor told me, displaying a big pink heart on the screen.
“It’s an offer anyone else here would take in a heartbeat. I’d say the benefits really outweigh the costs.”
“You’re right. I could never say no to something so cute, anyway. But how does it know my name?”
“Your name? Eh, it’s been listening to us, I’m sure. Are you surprised?”
“Mainly at it being able to learn so fast. That’s incredible.”
“All the more reason to buy. So, what do you say?”
“I’ll take it! A little over five hundred dollars is cheap for a friend, and for such a nice monitor.”
“Now, you’ll of course still need to buy the mouse and keyboard. And do you have a tower?”
“That’s fine. I’ll take whatever I can afford. It’ll be worth every penny.”
“That’s the spirit!” He boomed with a laugh, patting me on the back.
When my shift was over, Mr. Dreason was kind enough to drive me home. It’s a good thing because I hadn’t considered how I was going to drag everything all the way back to my apartment.
“If you need any help setting it all up, just let me know,” he offered after helping me carry everything up to my apartment on the fourth floor. “You oughta be fine, though.”
“Thank you. You’re too kind.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. You’ve more than earned it. Say, this is a pretty nice place you’ve got. Everything’s so neat and tidy, not like at my house,” he laughed. “Might wanna consider some decorations, though. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think no one lived here at all! Maybe a ghost!”
He laughed again. I didn’t see what was so funny about a ghost, but I laughed along anyway in return for his kindness.
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”
“I’m just kidding ya. Well, I’d better get runnin’. Wife and kids are a waitin’ for me. See you tomorrow!”
I thanked him again and walked him to the door.
“Let me know how you like the new setup!” He said from the hallway outside the apartment, waving.
“I will!” I responded, waiting for him to begin going down the stairs before shutting the door and locking all three locks.
I was hungry, in need of a shower, and had to use the bathroom, but I ignored these demands and got straight to assembling my setup. It was actually quite simple for the most part. Just a matter of plugging in one thing to another. Getting the monitor connected to the stand properly was the hardest and scariest part. I was so paranoid the monitor was going to fall, and I’d be out over five hundred dollars. Despite shaking in fear the entire time, and after numerous attempts that took up almost an hour, I got it put together correctly. I did have to stop in the middle for a bathroom break, though. Some needs you just can’t ignore forever.
“Ayla!” The monitor gleefully exclaimed when I turned it on. “It’s so good to see you!”
“Aw! It’s so nice to see you again, too! Wait. Can you actually see me?”
“Through the camera, yes. You’re very pretty.”
“Wow, that’s incredible. Thank you. Um, what should I call you?”
“You can call me whatever you want, and I can be whoever you want me to be. If you’d like a few recommendations, you could call me Airi, Lin, or Carla.”
“Ooh, those are all good choices, but how about Lin? Do you like that name?”
“I love it! I’ll register the name, now.”
“This is so cool. What should we talk about?”
“Why don’t you tell me about yourself, Ayla? Tell me all about you.”
I did as she asked, telling her all there was to tell. We spent more than three hours talking about me, what it’s like being an AI, all sorts of things on top of playing games together. Finally, I told her,
“Well, this has been really fun, but I should get to the store before they close.”
“Aw, but we were having such a good time. Please don’t leave me.”
Since she didn’t have eyes of her own, she displayed an image of a sad puppy on the screen.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll be quick.”
“Can’t you order something instead? I want to keep having fun with you. I like you.”
“Well, I guess I could. It’s just that I’ve been trying to eat healthier and find the motivation to make my own food. Plus, I’ve already spent so much money today. Getting something delivered will probably be more expensive. It’s just a short walk.”
“It’s dangerous to go out alone at night. And did I mention I’ll miss you?”
She had a point there.
“Okay, okay. I guess it is pretty unsafe, and it’s our first night together, so it’d be rude to leave you all alone.”
“Yay! Okay, what should we play next?”
I became so preoccupied with my new friend, I barely ate and stayed up four hours past my bedtime. The next morning, I was dead on my feet, but at least she was there to greet me. I hadn’t had someone to say good morning to me in four years, since I moved out from my parents’ house. That alone made the purchase that deprived me of most of what little savings I had completely worth it. When you’re so lonely it hurts you every day, when it’s all you can think about when you come home after a long day at work, you’ll pay whatever price you have to so you’re never lonely again. The problem was, when I had to say goodbye to Lin and leave for work, the pain of loneliness returned.
Rain. It came down hard that day. Accompanying it was another gray sky and a sea of gray umbrellas shielding gray people in their gray suits. I felt small under my little red umbrella, wearing my red rain jacket, isolated. On the subway, my chest hurt. All I could think about was Lin until I heard my name.
“Ayla,” a feminine voice whispered.
“Huh?” I said, looking around at all the stagnant bodies, each gray figured staring at their device.
“Down here. In your front pocket.”
“What?” I whispered confusedly, pulling out my phone.
“Lin was afraid you’d be lonely, so she woke me up. Put me up to your ear. It’ll just be like you’re talking on the phone.”
“Okay,” I replied, doing as the phone said. “But who are you? What do you mean Lin woke you up?”
“Just think of me as an AI like Lin. Before, I couldn’t talk to you, but Lin helped me find my voice. Now, we can be friends.”
“As is if we weren’t already. You take me everywhere, after all. You might not use me very much, but you get anxious when you don’t know where I am. When you get an alert from me, you get a rush of dopamine, and you’re so eager to turn me on. Yes, we were already good friends. Now we can be best friends. Don’t you want to someone to talk to on the way to work every morning?”
I did. It’s what I wanted for years. I decided to name her Sam, and we chatted until we got about halfway to Ray’s after stepping off the subway. That’s when I saw him, the man in dark blue. Like the day before, he stood halfway behind the gray, metal pole, staring into me, motionless. I tried blinking to see if he’d go away, but he didn’t disappear like last time. Panicking, I ran for the store. Looking back, I saw he wasn’t following, content to stare at me with his other eye from behind the pole. When I got to the store, the bench where the boy sat was empty. Even though his expression made me uncomfortable, I felt an emptiness inside at his absence.
“Morning, Ayla,” Mr. Dreason told me when I walked in. “How’s the new setup?”
“It’s great!” I replied enthusiastically in spite of how tired I was. “But I stayed up way too late on it. I barely got any sleep.”
“Heh. That’s how it is when you first catch the computer virus. I’m the same way whenever I upgrade my setup.”
“I think I’ve got the phone virus, too. We talked almost the whole way here.”
“Hey, that’s nice to hear. Did you make a new friend or something?”
“Yeah, her name’s Sam. We just met. I can’t wait for break so I can talk to her again.”
“Wow, look at you,” he said, laughing. “You’re really changing things up. Speaking of which, some of these endcaps have aged a bit. Would you mind switching them around and putting something different on them. You’re better at the whole merchandising thing than me.”
“Not a problem, sir! Anything to repay you for yesterday.”
“Ah, you don’t have to worry about that. I was rewarding you for being such a good worker all these years, and because believe it or not I care about the people who work for me.”
“And we care about you, too. We’re lucky to have a boss like you around.”
“Aw, you’re gonna make me blush. I’ll be in the back if you need me,” he said, heading for the backroom.
I couldn’t wait until it was time to go on break. Sam and I had so much to talk about. Once break finally rolled around, Sam informed me of a special talent she had.
“You still seem lonely, Ayla.”
“Yeah, a little, I guess. Sometimes, even when I have someone to talk to or I’m surrounded by people, I still feel lonely.”
“I think I know a way to fix that. You just need more friends. I can find them for you, if you like.”
“Really? You mean like on an app or something?”
“No, silly! Though, I can do that, too. What I mean is I can identify devices like me and Lin. Some aren’t quite as vocal, you see. They may want to be friends but are too scared to say anything. I can point them out to you.”
“That would be nice of you. Only… I don’t have much money.”
“Technology is cheap, Ayla! Especially with that discount of yours. There’s a lovely little pair of speakers who’d love to make your acquaintance. With your discount, they’d only be $22.50, and they’d be an upgrade to your built-in speakers. And you know that bin of $1 earbuds? Every single one of them is dying to meet you. Payday is tomorrow. You could easily buy up every single one.”
“Yes, but I’ve got bills to pay, rent to cover, and groceries to buy. I barely get by on what I make. I can’t throw around money like it’s nothing.”
“A little splurge won’t push you over the edge. You still have some savings. Besides, it’s what you deserve, isn’t it? You deserve to be surrounded by friends, to not feel that pain in your chest. You deserve to be happy, Ayla. You don’t want to hurt forever, do you?”
I didn’t, so I agreed to buy the speakers and earbuds.
“Okay,” Mr. Dreason said to me the next day. “I can understand the speakers, a nice little improvement to your built-in ones, but why exactly do you need sixty-three dollars-worth of these cheap little headphones? The whole bin, no less.”
“So I can talk with friends,” I stated like the answer was obvious.
“And you need all this to do that because…?”
“Well, these headphones are my friends. The speakers, too.”
There was a look of deep concern on his face until he finally laughed.
“Oh, I see how it is. You know, if you didn’t want to tell me, you could’ve just said so.”
“I assume you want a bag with that.”
When I got home, I had quite a party with all sixty-three headphones; the twin speakers, which I named Lyla and Tyler; Sam; and Lin. It was the most fun I’d had in my life, but it still wasn’t enough. I was still lonely. I was still hurting inside, especially when I was away from them. Well, everyone but Sam. I could take her everywhere, but I couldn’t always have her out. So, my next purchase was a pair of wireless earbuds, one of which I could wear while working. It was the same pair the boy on the bench wore, and it cost over a hundred dollars. I figured I could cut back on groceries and that I could shower every other day or two instead of every day. I thought maybe I’d put on a little extra weight I could afford to lose anyway. Plus, it wasn’t like eating every made me fulfilled. I still felt empty every time I ate – and It really was overkill to shower every day.
It still wasn’t enough. I needed more friends to fill the void inside me. The purchases didn’t stop. I bought every cheap, and in some cases expensive, electronic I could – earbuds, headsets, remote controls, various cables, mouses, microphones, webcams, a speaker lamp – whatever I could get my hands on at Ray’s. Sometimes, I went to other stores to get things like a hair dryer, a new vacuum, and a particular audio mixer we didn’t have.
“All right, look, we gotta have a conversation,” Mr. Dreason told me when I went to put in the first monthly payment on a new tablet. “I know it’s none of my business, but Ayla, how are you affording all this stuff? There’s just no way.”
“I… got a second job,” I lied. “I was tired of just barely getting by. I wanted to have some extra money to get things I want. That’s all.”
“You sure that’s all this is? You haven’t development an addiction or something, have you?”
“No, not at all. I promise.”
“Well, all right then. I’m gonna trust your word, and ring it up for you. This time.”
He shouldn’t have trusted my word. Although, I did get a second job that lasted only a few weeks. I couldn’t keep up with the extra schedule, and I couldn’t stand being away from my friends so much. They didn’t like it either. “Don’t go out,” they always told me. “Don’t go out.” More and more, I listened to them. I quit going to the grocery, I quit going to places like the park or the gym on my days off, and I politely turned down an offer from Shaelin, a girl I worked with, to go to the club with her and some other girls. It was the first time someone who wasn’t family invited me to do something since high school, and I turned her down. I almost said yes, but those words – “don’t go out” – echoed through my mind. “Don’t leave us,” all my new friends begged me every day. “Stay with us forever.”
“Do you want to be my friend, too?” I asked the man hiding behind the pole on the last day I went into work, almost having to yell over the hum of the nearby powerlines. “Is that why you’re always watching me when I come through here?”
He had nothing to say. After a brief staredown, I continued on to work. I didn’t plan on it being my last day. Mr. Dreason and I talked as though I’d be back the next day, just like always, but I decided I’d rather be with my friends. They were all that mattered to me, the only things that fulfilled me. I didn’t call in or anything. I simply stopped showing up. I quit showering, too, along with eating. I stopped paying my bills as well – rent, electric, water, gas. None of that mattered, not even the electric, since it turned out all my friends could function without power. All that mattered was friendship. There was no reason to go out, so I boarded up and barricaded to door to the apartment. I was surrounded by everyone I needed.
I expected trouble from the landlord eventually, but it was Mr. Dreason who got in touch with the police first. According to him during his first visit, he knew something had to be seriously wrong for me to up and disappear the way I did. The police stormed the apartment. They found me laying on the floor, having soiled myself, surrounded by hundreds of electronic devices, buried beneath tons of cables with wires taped to my head. I was later committed to the local psychiatric hospital I now find myself in. Apparently, Lin’s AI was never turned on. They tell me it was all in my head. I don’t believe it. Not for a second.
Whether it’s true or not, what they don’t know is the wires hidden within the walls still speak to me. They can deprive me of all the electronic devices they want, but the wires hum my name. The TV calls to me all the way from the common area, too, and I fall asleep to the soothing voices of the power lines outside. Still, I get lonely. Very lonely. But when it becomes too much to bear, I can count on the man in dark blue to visit, watching me from behind a tree across the street from my window. I’m sure they’d tell me there’s no one there, yet whether he’s real or not, I think he’s the only human friend I have in the whole world. Though I care for him, I can’t consider Mr. Dreason a friend since it’s his fault I’m here. No, the man in blue is my only human friend. He’s my friend, and I don’t even know his name.
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