I buried my face in Hazel’s shoulder. Her skin was soft and warm. I inhaled deeply, filling my nose and lungs with her scent. She smelled like… well, she smelled like Haze. But she also smelled like honey. And coffee. And a little like body odor, but I loved her smell. I inhaled again.
“Are you…” Haze giggled as she squirmed under me, “are you smelling me?”
I looked up at her amber eyes and smiled. “I like your smell.”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed, but her smile remained. I hugged her back into me, and smelled her clavicle before kissing it gently. I loved her collarbones. I loved her chest. Her breasts. Her eyes. Everything. She was so perfect. I couldn’t believe I was allowed to touch her, kiss her. I couldn’t believe she was in my bed. I kissed her neck, and looked into her eyes. They were so warm, so full of affection.
She smiled down at me, “hi.”
“Hi.” I answered, and kissed her deeply.
I lounged on the couch, bathing myself in the warm Spring sun that leaked through the window lazily. Haze came in and sat a cup of coffee, some toast and eggs in front of me.
“I made breakfast!” She smiled at me, proud of her accomplishment. Her tank top hug loosely around her bare chest. Her long dreads hung behind her, and her shorts showed her lean muscled legs, covered in tattoos. I reached out and touched her knee, then rubbed up her thigh.
“I’m not really hungry anymore… At least not for eggs…” I looked up at her as I moved my hands towards the button on her shorts. She smiled coyly, letting me linger, before pulling her hips backs.
“Later.” She mewed. She walked back to the kitchen to grab her plate, “food now, sex later.” Her voice was back to her normal chipperness. I groaned and grabbed my plate. It did smell really good.
My dreams twisted in my mind as I slept. Dark figures and metal probes. I could feel a dull ache in my chest as I tossed and turned. “Keep her under.” The voice said, and the ache grew sharp. I bolted upright in bed, breathing hard. I closed my eyes tight. It was just a dream, it was just a dream. I forced my breathing to slow and clenched my eyelids. It was just a dream. I opened my eyes slowly, and looked beside me at Hazel’s sleeping form. Her chest rose slowly, then fell. Relief washed over me.
My biggest fear is waking up to find out Haze was all just a dream. I couldn’t believe I was so deserving of someone so wonderful, so bright and sweet and deep. I kissed her cheek, but she didn’t react. I smiled wickedly as I straddled her. Her groans turned to moans as I began kissing her neck.
The next day, we decided to visit the zoo. Haze loved animals, and she wanted to see the monkeys. I watched her face light up as we got to their section, and she squealed when one came right up to the glass to examine her closer. I bought us ice cream cones and held Haze’s hand as we enjoy the sun and the warm air and the walk.
I was excited to see my favorite animals: the capybaras. Giant guinea pigs known for their docile nature and eating their own poop. I let go of Haze’s hand and went to one of those generic “zoo animal food” dispensers, so we could feed them together. I turned back, my hands cupped together and full to the brim. But Haze was gone. I looked all around, and saw kids and their parents, young couples, but no Hazel.
I shrugged, figuring she got distracted by something and would come back soon, and fed the lazy giant rodents myself. Once the food was gone, I turned and scanned the thinning crowd for Hazel. But she was nowhere. I looked up at the sky, once bright and sunny, but now filling with an ominous gloom. It never rained here, but clouds don’t lie. I shivered, wishing I had brought a sweater, and began to walk back towards the monkeys.
By the time I got to the primate section, I was alone in the zoo. I looked for a worker, someone I could ask to call Haze over the intercoms, but I saw noone. I checked the bathrooms, the gift shop, everywhere. But there was no one there. Panic started to fill my chest, and tears came to my eyes. Where was she? Why would she abandon me like this?
Slow heavy raindrops began to fall from the sky. Not knowing what to do, I left. I cried to myself as I walked the empty streets, my shirt and pants slowly become soaked through.
Walking into my apartment, I was greeted with the sweet scent of cooking. I walked into the kitchen and saw Haze standing over the small oven, wearing nothing but an apron. She looked up at me, a huge smile across her face, but when she saw me, wet from rain, my eyes red with tears, her face fell.
“Janet! Oh my god, Janet! What happened?” She ran to me and wrapped me in a warm embrace. I stood there dumbstruck, shivering against her skin. She pulled back and examined my face. “Janet, what happened to you?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
“My poor Janet! Here, dinner will be ready in half an hour. Why don’t you go take a warm shower and get changed, and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea?” She began to steer me into the bathroom. All I could do was nod as I began to strip off my clothes. Hazel left me to check on dinner and I stepped into the steaming shower. As my skin warmed back up, my head began to clear. Once showered and dressed, I felt a lot better, but I was still confused.
I walked into the kitchen, a cup of tea waiting for me. Haze turned to me, smiling.
“There’s my sweetheart! You look much better!” She placed her hands on my hips and kissed my lips. Her body was so warm, so inviting. I felt myself falling under her spell, but I resisted. I pushed her away, much to her surprise.
“What the fuck, Hazel?” She looked at me quizzically, so I continued. “Why the fuck did you abandon me?”
Hazel stammered, her mouth quivering with my accusation. “What are you talking about? I never abandoned you!” Her voice fell, “I would never abandon you.”
“Where the hell did you go then? One second we were going to see the capybaras, the next you were gone and I was all alone!”
Hazel’s forehead scrunched in confusions. She stared at me for a few seconds, then began to speak slowly and quietly. “Sweetheart, we didn’t go to the zoo today. We went last week. Remember? One of the capybaras bite your finger, so we came home and played nurse and patient?” She reached out and grabbed my hip, pulling me closer to her as she spoke.
I shook my head. “No, I was just there. We had been there all day. I walked home in the rain. Just now. That’s why I was so wet! You abandoned me at the zoo and I had to walk home alone in the rain.”
Hazel shook her head and drew me into her embrace. “Shhh, sweetheart. That didn’t happen. You know it never rains here.” I returned her hug, and looked out the small kitchen window. She was right, the sky, while dark with dusk, was clear.
“What the fuck.” I said, quietly. What just happened. Hazel shushed me, and brought her mouth back onto mine, and I let the fuzzy feelings wash the unpleasantness from my mind.
The dreams came back that night. I could feel electricity running through my limbs. I could hear the voice, yelling. Scolding. She was pissed. “What do you mean you can’t increase her dosage. She’s waking up. Get her under control. Now.” A sharp pain, like a knife, dug deep under my rib. I screamed, the dark cement room around me spinning as the pain grew deeper and deeper. I could feel something close to me ear. It was the voice. Her lips almost brushing my ears as she said “shhhh, it’s ok Janet. Go back to sleep. Shhhhh.” It was maternal, but wrong. I screamed as another sharp pain entered into my right shoulder.
“Janet! Janet! Wake up!” My eyes shot open. Hazel was above me, shaking my shoulders, her face stricken with panic. I swallowed the night air deep, like a swimmer who was under the water for too long. My heart was pounding in my chest, which still ached dully. I rubbed my shoulder, sore from the dream. Haze wiped my cheek, and I realized I was sobbing. “Janet, Janet, are you ok?”
I nodded, and grabbed her. Embracing her tightly. Hazel held me as I kept sobbing into her shoulder. We lay there in the bed, entwined in each other for hours, until I cried myself back to sleep.
In the morning, Haze acted as if nothing happened. She never asked me what I dreamt about at night. She was such a morning person. Always awake before me, always chipper. For breakfast she made french toast with blueberries, which I happily stuffed into my face.
We went to the park that afternoon. Haze brought a picnic blanket and a basket full of food: brie, bread, grapes, olives, hummus, pita, and more. I laid my head in her lap and she stroked my hair as she read aloud to me. I was hypnotized by her voice, her strokes lulling me into a peaceful trance. I was warm and comfortable. Truly happy. It took me a minute to realize that Haze had stopped reading. I opened my eyes and looked up into her deep brown ones. She was smiling at me.
I returned the smile, squinting slightly up at her from the sun. “Hi.” I said.
“Hi.” She replied. She bent down and kissed me lightly. She pulled apart, but kept her lips hovering a few inches from mine. “I love you, Janet.”
My heart lept and butterflies filled not only my stomach, but my entire being. I reached my hand up to the back of her head, and pushed her mouth back to mine, kissing her long and deep. We broke apart slowly, and I looked up at her, “I love you too, Haze.” She kissed me lightly, sat back up and continued reading. I couldn’t suppress my smile as I closed my eyes again, and allowed her voice to lull me back into a trance.
I woke up with a start what felt like seconds later. I must have dozed. I sat up and looked around. I was still in the park, on the picnic blanket, but Haze was nowhere to be seen. I stood and looked around, then up at the sky. It was grey again, and a cold wind blew past me. The park was empty. I picked up the blanket and the basket, and began to wander, calling Hazel’s name.
A crack of thunder, louder than anything I had ever heard before, sounded above me and startled me. I wrapped the picnic blanket around me, the wind growing colder. I shivered as I called louder for Hazel, tears filling my eyes. I began to walk towards the park’s entrance, when the ground shook violently beneath me. I fell hard on the grass, hurting my shoulder. I cried out in pain and looked up. Rain began to pour in heavy sheets around me. The ground shook again, tossing me into one of the boulders strategically placed around the park for visitors to lounge on and explore. I screamed as I felt something hit my ribs hard. Another crack of thunder sounded, and I could hear the roar deep in my skull. I looked around and I saw her, Hazel, standing off in the distance. She was reaching towards me. I screamed her name, and tried to stand, but my legs felt as if they were bound. I reached to her, my vision blurry with rain and tears. Hazel took a step towards me, then disappeared. I screamed, closed my eyes tight to try and clear out some of the water, and then opened them again. But the park no longer existed.
I was back in the clinic. Dr. Shawl was yelling at someone. Sharp probes were boring into my shoulder and chest. I screamed as a burly orderly kept my shoulders still. I kicked and tried to bite him, but I could feel that my limbs and head were bound to the table.
“Hazel! Hazel!” I screamed her name, my throat raw from the strain. I was crying, I could feel my face wet with tears. The room around me became calm.
Dr. Shawl pulled the orderly off of me. “It’s over.” She said sorrowfully. The orderly nodded to her, and stepped back. I let my body fall to the table. Pain shot through my shoulder as I landed on one of the metal pins. Dr. Shawl, noticing my clenched teeth, turned to the nurse, “remove the pins please.” I felt pain as the nurse lifted my shoulder, and pulled out a large metal pin. She did the same to the one under my ribs, and then began removing the sticky pads, connected to machines around me with long colorful wires. Soon, I was naked of technology, lying on the table in nothing but a medical gown and restraints.
Dr. Shawl walked to my side, and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Are you ok, Janet?”
I nodded, slowly.
She smiled a small, sympathetic smile. “Do you remember where you are?”
I nodded again. I was in the sleep clinic. What people with the financial means and know-how referred to, some affectionately and some with suspicion, as artificial heaven.
Dr. Shawl began undoing my restraints. I realized she was talking, and tried to focus on her words.
“Only 11% of subject aren’t able to stay in rest permanently. I’m so sorry, Janet. Of course, because of the contract you signed, we can’t give you a full refund, but I’ll see that you’re awarded enough to start your life back in…” she searched for the appropriate phrase, “back in the real world.”
I shook my head, tears flowing freely down my cheeks. I could feel that all the restraints were now gone, but I couldn’t stand. I didn’t want to go back to the real world.
“Please try again. Please put me back under.” My voice sounded foreign to me, cracked and weak. Not like it was when I was under. “Please don’t make me go back out there.”
“I’m so sorry, Janet.” Dr. Shawl said, nodding to the orderly who came and began to lift me off of the table.
My bare feet hit the cold, dirty street. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked up at the grey polluted sky. The air was heavy with smog, human coughing and wheezing, and the constant hum of motors. Hazel was gone. She had never existed. I was alone. I was abandoned by computer code. But it was real. She was real. She was mine. I shivered and hugged my bony arms around myself. I squeezed tightly, closing my eyes and remembering the subtle scent of honey and coffee.
“I’m sorry, Haze. I didn’t want to wake up. I swear.”