Rediscover your soul! The real you. Simple as watching a movie, and there's FREE popcorn!
|Chapter One: The World is Awash with Wonder
The smoke spiralled up from my lips and hotboxed the roof of my umbrella before creeping out to meet the raindrops.
The rain always fell in winter. If you mentioned it you’d hear the reply “at least it’s not snow”.
Which, fair enough, you didn’t have to shovel rain. It also wasn’t cold when it rained, just water-logged.
I made my way down an unexpected, but pleasantly empty, city sidewalk. I didn’t really mind the rain, the sound of the water was soothing. And after all these years I’d mastered the art of not forgetting my umbrella on the bus or the last place I’d put it down.
Cities in the Pacific Northwest are not immune to the ravages of the forest. As I walked along, I noticed a very large orange leaf floating downstream in the gutter. It stopped when it reached the grates of a storm drain. I stopped as well.
The water tried to force the leaf, but it was too big. After a minute or two, more leaves, a hotdog wrapper, sticks and some small bits of orange fibreglass piled up. It crumpled and everything flooded in.
I looked up and noticed I was standing in front of a large stone building. It was the colour of a tombstone, with all the warmth of a cemetery. The lowest windows were covered in black metal security bars. The ornate wrought iron look of them suggested they had been custom made.
A single, illuminated sign hung off the front of the building. It was modest (from the Eighties?) and surprisingly small, I had barely noticed it above the front door. Two lines of black letters on a white background, all capital announced:
YOU’RE NOT LOST
Like the leaf, I was in no particular hurry and found my curiosity piqued. I walked up to the towering entry wood. “Free popcorn”, a little sign said, so I pushed the heavy mahogany door open.
The doors opened slowly, (deliberately?) and the grey tones outside gave way to a slightly brighter, velvety interior. I was greeted by the smell of sterile cleanliness, followed by two large, toothy grins. Above them, behind a large glass case, eyes lit up like Roman candles.
“Hello! Welcome to the Center! I’m Sarah!” A woman in a maroon dress said making her way toward me, hand outstretched.
“We’re happy to meet you! I’m Charles!” A man in a maroon suit added.
He eagerly shook the hand I had stuck out in confusion.
“What makes us lucky enough to have you here today?” Charles said in a delightful drawl.
“...It’s nice to meet you, I’m MJ. Is that an American accent I hear?” I said dodging the ‘what’ I came in for and slightly imitating his pronunciation.
“Guilty as charged mam! I'm, from the great state of Texas!” said Chuck.
A monologue tattooed into their minds and memorized by their mouths began and my eyes wandered toward the cases. They were full of books, pens, pins, coins, clothes and decorative boxes. The boxes were bronze, silver, gold, and inscribed with the same insignia as the rugs, walls and probably, even somewhere on Sarah and Charles.
They spoke with distinct, welcoming tones. In great detail, about many subjects, as vaguely as possible.
At the end, they asked if I’d like to discover my life’s satisfaction in a pleasant, real, interactive movie experience.
To me that sounded like a fortune cookie, horoscope or tarot card reading. “Is there popcorn?” I asked.
Despite the sign on the door, I was still pleasantly surprised that there was. You have to sweeten, or in this case, ‘salten’ the deal, to make someone give up a half-hour. Even if it was a rainy Tuesday afternoon. This was a tourist shopping district, with a million other things vying for attention to be paid.
Chapter Two: Watch What You See
The setup was a private screening room. The kind one might find in a mansion, the likes of which I’m never in. It was cavernous. Long heavy draperies hung on the walls in deep, dark tones. The carpet was a wine coloured wool. They gave me a pair of headphones (maroon, free to keep) and popcorn, then a face appeared on the screen. It started female, then morphed into a male as it changed topics. It riffed about the meaning of the Universe and traffic jams. An old man asked me what made me mad, I told him. A young girl asked me, ‘what makes me happy?’ I told her. A few of my attempts at humour were rebuffed by silence until the program received a logical response it could continue from.
Yes, it was interactive, but in the simplest way possible. Not in the Gene Roddenberry, robot, hologram, real-time conversation, futuristic way I’d imagined and hoped for.
'C'est la free'.
I enjoyed the popcorn. They didn’t skimp on the butter, it tasted real. The experience itself wasn’t awful. Lots of really neat aerial shots of beautiful places, people enjoying expensive hobbies in them, animals. Waterfalls.
Wildlife; the four, not two-legged kind. It wasn’t the historical snooze fest they could have opted to play for new recruits. Which is what I figured I was.
Sarah and Charles appeared at the end and asked if I’d like to see my score.
“My whaaaaa----T?” I said surprised, as she took the empty popcorn bag from my hand.
“Yes, everyone who participates in the movie gets a free wellness score."
"We can breakdown and explain it to you.” Chuck cheerily offered.
My eyebrow cocked at their choice of words; 'breakdown' and the implication you were in a movie.
I hadn't anticipated my responses generating math. Or the two hungry, faces who never stopped smiling working this hard. But here we were.
“Show me what you got! Or what I got, I should say!”
We walked from the theatre down a mirrored hallway to a bright modern room, with large spacious chairs.
Sarah offered me something to drink, I declined politely. I wasn’t sure what they wanted from me yet, or how they intended to get it... Sugar cookies? Spicy rice? Saltpetre?
To my disappointment, they were trying to beat me into submission through endurance and exhaustion, not food additives.
A wellness score was exactly what it sounded like. Except your overall wellness was comprised of several individual parts of your life, that themselves were comprised of parts until you’d spent a whole 45 minutes talking about what worked and what didn’t.
Guaranteed, something didn’t work. That’s where the center came in.
Luckily, for me I was well preserved; smoked. And I’d preserved myself well, about 5 minutes before I walked through these doors, so I was in the mood for conversational gymnastics and waltzing.
To everyone’s surprise, (except mine) there were no parts of my score that didn’t work. I wasn't surprised because I wasn't paying that much attention. Sarah and Charles were. They seemed nervous, the kind of nervous they’d been trying to keep me this whole time.
“Can you excuse us for one lil’ ol' itty bitty moment?” Chuck asked.
“Of course” I replied. But he was already heading out the door with the “results” in his hands.
Sarah made sure I still didn’t need anything and hurried out behind him.
The walls were baby blue, like a velour tracksuit. I got up and ran my finger down one. It felt like velvet.
Across the room, another wall with large, silver, italicized cursive letters declared:
THE INFORMATION IS YOURS. WE ARE HERE TO REMIND YOU.
Something unsettled me about those simple, innocuous, encouraging words. But just like the purpose of this place, or what exactly they believed, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Several floors above me in a room that looked like the inside of a hotel ‘a’ God would stay at, Sarah and Charles stood in front of a massive white marble desk.
“...The charts and graphs were the same too?” said a deep voice.
“Yes, sir” answered Charles.
“And you followed up with the C protocol questions?” the bass had a little tenor in it now.
“Absolutely Sir” Sarah responded.
It was proper procedure to hear from each employee in tandem, especially opposite-sex pairs.
The inquisitive man swivelled around. Giving Sarah and Charles a chance to fully appreciate the leather quality on the chair back. He thought for a minute, stood and walked around the desk. His gold-trimmed, ebony suit a full-bodied figure against the white marble room.
“Sir, permission to speak?” Sarah asked meekly, slouching slightly as she did.
“Speak,” said the raven coloured suit.
“Have you ever seen this before?”
Charles glared at Sarah. She’d been with the organization long enough to know that questioning a superior was strictly forbidden.
The man seemed to agree with Charles, till he reassuringly turned to an uneasy Sarah and said “No, my Dear, I have not. Please, bring her to me”.
Chapter Three: Wish You Weren't Here
Charles and Sarah walked into a giant oyster. He pushed a gold “M” button and turned away from her, well aware all areas of the building were monitored.
“She must have lied somehow... cheated” he muttered under his breath.
“That’s impossible. You know there’s no way to beat it. It’s his Kobayashi Maru”. Sarah said to her mother-of-pearl reflection in the elevator door.
They iridescently continued downwards trying not to think about insurmountable scenarios.
I was so impressed when they brought me upstairs the first thing I said to the man in the jet black suit was “I love your elevator”.
He laughed and sat back down behind his big marble desk, in his white leather chair I was sure felt like a cloud.
“It’s not my elevator per se, but I did personally oversee the design.” He waved his hand and continued “...of it, and this entire building.”
He offered his hand across the desk. I shook a jewelry store drawer's worth of merchandise and noted the firm grip. I refrained from a joke about needing a strong arm to ‘carry around all that gold!’
He smiled at me as if he knew, and appreciated the restraint.
He introduced himself as Don DeWolf, Chief Executive Lieutenant. I introduced myself as me.
“The elevator reminds me of an abalone shell” I continued.
“That’s exactly what inspired me.” he licked his lips, which caused me to ask if he’d partaken in the shellfish delicacy.
“Of course, it’s divine!” he laughed.
I replied that I hadn't, but I’d heard good things so I was game. De Wolf advised me to make sure it was wild.
“Nothing raised in captivity is the same. Wild flavour is concentrated, exquisite. It stands apart.”
“That must be why they poach it eh?”
For a second he didn’t laugh. For a few more seconds, he studied my face. Finally, Don broke out in deep, hearty howls. It was my own slow reaction time that stopped me from jumping when he slapped his hand on his desk in amusement.
“You’re a very funny woman, you should do comedy. What brought you in to see us today?”
This question again.
I short answered him some b.s. about wanting more out of life.
He looked me in the eyes and said: “It was the free popcorn wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you know what you did today?”
“Ate free popcorn, watched a movie, took a secret test?” I offered.
“You beat a program that wasn’t destined to be beaten.”
“Sorry?” I said apprehensively.
Don leaned back in the chair, put his elbows on the arms and interlaced his fingers in front of him.
“Do you want to tell me how you did that?”
I laughed. This was getting a little ridiculous. 'Free popcorn and I gotta plead the fifth?!'
“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about... I’m sorry if I didn’t take the test seriously...” I said as unaggressively as possible.
“Who sent you?” he cut me off, eyes narrowing, back stiffening.
De Wolf snarled “WHY DID YOU COME HERE!”
I pushed my chair back from the desk as he uncrossed his fingers and leaned toward me.
“Damn, nobody sent me! Are you f’real?! Is it that hard to believe I just wandered in randomly?”
I stood up to leave without taking my eyes off Don.
“I don’t know who you think I am or what you think I know, so I’m going to go.” I motioned toward the door behind me.
Mr. DeWolf let a surprisingly calm sigh. He smoothed his silver-white hair back in one sweeping motion of his hand.
“I’m sorry. You’re not going anywhere until you tell me how you did what you did. And if you don’t want to tell me?” He said raising to his feet. “And if you don't know?” He continued, slowly coming around the desk. “Well, you’re still not going anywhere and telling anyone how or what, you did...”
He stopped a foot in front of me.
He tapped my skull with his index finger “Maybe we should get the answers right from your brain?” he said.
I tilted my head.
He looked down menacingly.
We locked eyes. He smiled.
I smiled back.
Chapter Four: When in Doubt, In is Out
30 minutes later Charles and Sarah took in the glory that was Don DeWolf’s office door before rapping as politely, yet firmly as possible. It had seemed like 30 days and they’d reached the wall of their impatience.
“Enter!” Came the booming voice from inside.
They walked in together and crossed the room, nervously looking around.
“Is everything alright Sir?” Charles said as calmly as possible.
“Yes Chuc-, Charles, forgive me,” Don said gesturing at him, “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“We-we-w-were just wanted, to follow-up about that woma-, about the test results” Charles stuttered.
“For protocol!” Sarah added clearly.
“...In case we have a situation like that again. Where someone cheats?” she finished unsurely.
Don DeWolf looked at the bag in her hands.
“We DIDN'T have a situation. You’re correct dear, she did cheat. And not in a very clever way either! I can tell you after a brief conversation I was able to deduce what and how she had managed to confuse both you and the program.”
Sarah and Charles let out a collective breath and their shoulders relaxed half a millimetre.
DeWolf barked on.
“I’ve taken the liberty of seeing the trouble out. Not only myself but the whole organization thanks you for your service to us.”
She and Chuck both blushed.
She was so elated she almost dropped the woman’s bag.
“I will personally see that you are both credited for your professional conduct, perhaps a rise in the ranks for your displays of good judgment today? I’ll also see that gets back to its rightful owner. You can leave it on the desk, Ms. Connor.”
The formal use of her name snapped her back to reality.
“That will be all for today. Please see yourselves out and thank you again.” Mr. DeWolf finished.
She placed the bag on the desk, they bowed, thanked Mr. DeWolf and both left the room at the speed of light.
It was rare and completely unheard of, for recruits as new as them to receive praise much less earn promotion.
They flashed their toothy grins again.
Except now they really had something to smile about.
Don picked up the woman’s bag. He reached inside and rummaged around till he found a little plastic tube. He held it up.
Inside a beautifully rolled cone waited for him.
He reached over, grabbed a beautiful gold handle and opened a large desk drawer.
The woman’s clothes had been so hastily stuffed in there a piece of her sock was sticking out. He dug around and pulled out jeans. Inside the front pocket, he found a lighter. He opened the tube and proceeded to achieve cruising altitude.
As he watched the smoke spiral out for the second time that day he looked around the room for a smoke detector but didn’t see one.
This wasn’t what I was planning on doing today but ‘what the heck right?’
Don DeWolf hadn't been planning on what would happen when he grabbed my bare arm with his bare hand either.
I didn't know where he went, but he was gone before my empty clothes crumpled to the white wool carpet.
I also didn't know who they were.
I've heard 'THEY' say: "you only live once".
But not how many leaves you could turn over, in that lifetime.