The Commuter

 

The Commuter

by Michael R. Fletcher

8:50am. Friday.

An hour stuck in parking lot-like traffic, screaming at the bastards impeding his progress–drive like you’re going somewhere!–and Shawn finally arrived at SAMA Accounting. He parked the Bentley, kicking the door closed as he exited the vehicle.

It might be his car, but it wasn’t like he paid for it. Not really.

Hell with ’em both. They did this to me.

Shawn approached the SAMA entrance, slowing as he neared. Why? Why was he doing this to himself? He should go for a beer. Hell with work. When was the last time he had a cold beer? He couldn’t remember. It seemed like months, but it had been years.

He glanced at Rancy’s Bar, a divey little wanna-be Irish Pub, across the street. For sure they had Guinness.

No. He’d made a choice, he’d live by it. This was for the best. Right?

Shawn pushed through the plate-glass doors before he could change his mind, stalked through the crowded lobby, head down, and into the security cordon. They probably thought him rude. Didn’t matter.

I must be an idiot. Nothing is worth this.

Except apparently he didn’t believe that.

He knew how he felt, right? If he ignored how miserable he was, there must be worth it. Right? Both Work Shawn and Home Shawn could remember the commute. They knew what a hell his life was. They knew. They remembered. And still they did nothing.

Bastards.

Prashanti, head of SAMA security, watched Shawn from behind the bomb-proof glass. Was looking paranoid was part of her job description, or just something that came naturally? The little hopper door opened with a sigh, and there sat his Memory Plug, Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer displayed in winking green text. Work Shawn, right there. Lucky bastard. He was the reason for all of this.

When things got bad at home and he’d thought Doris would leave him, he’d decided, with the help of the Human Resources department and a hefty raise, that his personal life was messing up his performance at work.

The answer was obvious: Keep work at work, and leave the home life at home. And ne’er the two shall meet. As he already wore a Memory Plug for work so he couldn’t take home any of the sensitive numbers he dealt with every day, achieving this was simple. One Memory Plug for work and one for home. Home Shawn had no idea what he did at work, and Work Shawn had no idea what went on at home. Happiness all around, right? Work Shawn could focus with the kind of Obsessive/Compulsive behaviour that got him here and Home Shawn could focus on being a great husband and father. SAMA even footed the bill for the second plug.

It must have worked. Here he was, three years later, still looking at that damned plug every morning.

But there was a third Shawn: Commuter Shawn.

He hadn’t really thought this through. Third Shawn was unplugged Shawn, the guy who made the commute to and from work every day. He’d lived maybe fourteen hundred hours in the last three years, all of that stuck in traffic. The commute was his life.

“You’ll be late,” said Prashanti.

Shawn glanced towards the lobby and freedom. No. He must want to be here. He collected the plug and brought it up to the neural socket on–

5:04pm. Friday.

–the back of his skull.

There he was again, standing in the security cordon. Security guards lounged near both exits and Prashanti watched Shawn disapprovingly from behind the bomb-proof glass. Did she ever go home?

Shawn glared at the moulded plastic flesh-tone plug sitting in his hand. Drop it to the floor, stomp it to dust. No one could stop him. He could end this right now.

“Plug,” said Prashanti sounding annoyed and he obediently dropped it into the waiting hopper. Coward. With a quiet sip it was sucked into the waiting storage facility and filed away. It’d be waiting for him Monday after he’d lived through two more hours of hell.

Time, he thought, and the current time and date displayed in the upper corner of his vision. Almost exactly eight hours since he’d last existed. No over-time then. Did that mean things were better at home with Doris? He’d never know. The last time he saw his wife she said he was an angry asshole and she never wanted to see him again. It didn’t help that he hadn’t recognised their daughter. Not my fault! A month and a half for him and suddenly Jeannie was three years old.

Christ, I’m missing everything!

Shawn left SAMA without acknowledging the other folks filing out alongside him. They chatted amongst themselves, but no one talked to him. No one ever talked to him.

The Bentley hummed to life the moment his seatbelt was fastened and his favourite playlist came on; all math metal all the time. Shawn sat in the parked car, listening to hyper-precise blastbeats. The music was all that kept him sane through the drive home. Rancey’s beckoned.

Go for a beer. Just one. If he took but a moment for himself today, maybe tomorrow he wouldn’t want to die. Home Shawn would be late for dinner and that would piss Doris off. Give her another reason to hate me. Shawn sat, listening to the thirty-second notes on the kick drum.

Across the street a woman waved at him. Someone from work? Confused, he waved back. She had nice hair, long and dark, and her clothes had an artsy home-made look. She blew him a kiss and disappeared into the crowd of pedestrians fighting to board the masstrans.

Who was that?

He shook his head and shoved his way into traffic scattering pedestrians and causing half a dozen drivers to lean on their horns.

Fuck ’em.

Traffic crawled. He slammed his palms against the steering wheel until they hurt. Then he did it some more.

Why didn’t Home Shawn leave a snack in the car, something small and tasty? Was he worried about getting fat, or just a thoughtless bastard?

Once home Shawn climbed out of the Bentley, his knees creaking. Doris’ stupid Land Rover was in the drive and he pulled up close behind it, intentionally blocking her in. Why the hell did she need a monster all-wheel drive vehicle when she never left the city?

The front door recognized him, swinging open, and he faced the home-equivalent of SAMA’s security cordon. There was a sizeable foyer finished in brass and marble, with a closet, a scattering of tables Doris had bought at antique shows back before she hated him, and a locked door at the far end. On the door was a note, written in his hand even though he couldn’t remember writing it. The note said: Plug in before entering.

It was a reminder in case he ever forgot or thought maybe he deserved a taste of life.

In the back of the closet was a safe. Inside the safe was a Memory Plug and the key for the door with the note.

Thumb print. Retina scan. Enter an eight digit code. The safe swung open and there sat a flesh-toned plug, the word Home stencilled on it. Such a little word. How he missed it.

Shawn picked up the plug.

Destroy it. End this torture. I’m the real Shawn. I deserve better.

No. Destroy the plugs, and he’d be unemployed and divorced in no time.

Shawn lifted the plug to the socket on the back of–

7:45am. Monday.

–his skull. Shawn stood in the foyer, looking dully at the spotless marble and brass.

Who cleans this? Did I do it? Unlikely. They probably had a cleaning service. Doris hated cleaning as much as he did. Had, he corrected. He used to hate cleaning. When was the last time I cleaned something? He couldn’t remember. Cleaning seemed high entertainment compared to another rush hour commute. He’d stay here and polish brass for fun except the damned stuff was already spotless.

He tossed the plug into the safe and slammed the door closed. Fuck you.

Time, he thought. Yet another weekend gone.

His head ached and he felt groggy, like someone stored rotting gym socks in his skull. His mouth tasted sour and he felt like a wrung-out wash-cloth turned mouldy.

Am I hungover? Had the bastard been drinking Sunday night and then left him to deal with the hangover while stuck in traffic? His teeth tasted of the same gym socks that were in his brain. Bastard didn’t even brush his teeth!

Home Shawn knew how miserable he was and yet did he unplug once, just for a few minutes so he could live something other than the fucking commute? No!

Did Doris hate him that much?

When he checked his pocket for his wallet he found a crumpled pastry in a zip-lock bag. He dangled the bagged pastry before his eyes.

What’s this? An apology for the hangover?

Shawn opened the bag, removed the pastry, and stuffed the entire thing into his mouth. It was stale, but easily the best thing he’d tasted in months and far better than his own rancid tongue. He coughed white icing sugar over the perfectly clean marble and hoped to hell Home Shawn would have to clean it up.

Shawn slid into the Bentley and the car hummed to life the moment his seatbelt was fastened. He sat in silence.

Where was the music?

“Load math metal playlist,” he told the stereo.

“Playlist not found,” the car informed him in a feminine voice with the slightest hint of an English accent.

Not found? Not fucking found?

Doris deleted it. On purpose?

She must have.

Payback for parking her in?

Shawn glanced towards the front door. He could go in and get the stik his music was stored on. Dumping the tunes back on the Bentley’s stereo would only take seconds. But the Range Rover was still in the drive, parked just beyond his bumper. She was home. He’d either have to go through the annoyance of unplugging and hope Home Shawn was kind enough to fetch the music stik, or face Doris himself. She’d know. No way he could hide which Shawn he was.

He sat frozen in indecision, fingers tapping the steering wheel in time to the music he couldn’t listen to. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t face her. She hated him.

“I’m not afraid of her.”

Right.

Wait. The last time he’d seen the stik wasn’t a couple of months ago, it was three years ago. What were the odds it was where he’d left it? He thought back. Where had he left it? He couldn’t remember. Home Shawn would have to get it for him.

No. He could manage a day without music. Home Shawn would get the stik for him tomorrow.

“What playlists are loaded?” he asked the stereo.

“Country Classics of the Twenty-Teens,” the stereo answered.

Oh. Doris’ shit.

Shawn roared the Bentley up the ramp into the SAMA parking lot at 9:13am. The tires didn’t so much as squeak in protest and the stability control kept the ride perfectly smooth. How could something with so much power be so quiet? Just one more disappointment.

He climbed from the car, kicked the door closed, and headed for the SAMA entrance. The lobby was near empty. He avoided looking at the few people also arriving. Why make small talk? He hadn’t seen in anyone he worked with in three years. What could he talk about, how miserable he was?

“You’re late,” said Prashanti.

The little hopper door opened with an apathetic sigh, and there sat his Memory Plug, Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer winking in merry green. Work Shawn. Could Work Shawn be as miserable as he? After all, his entire life was the job. Nothing but numbers and equations, formulae and graphs. No. He’d loved that job. Numbers he was good at. People, they were the problem. At least until he’d met Doris. She was different. At least she had been.

What changed?

Prashanti coughed and nodded at the plug.

Shawn scooped it up and, before he could change his mind, jammed it into the neural–

5:45pm. Monday.

–socket.

Time, he thought. Why do I bother? Was he afraid he’d miss a day, that somehow they’d just stop unplugging and he’d be banished to limbo?

He clenched his fist, feeling the plug nestled in his palm. Was that an unreasonable fear?

“Plug,” said Prashanti.

Shawn dropped it into the waiting hopper and walked quickly through the SAMA lobby. Once outside he stood in the sun, enjoying its warmth on his skin. Across the street Rancey’s beckoned.

“Fuck ’em both, I’m going for a drink.”

“Mind if I join you?” a voice asked from behind.

Shawn turned and found his arms suddenly full of woman. “Hey,” he said, wondering how to politely extricate himself.

“Hey yourself,” she said, and, wrapping her arms around his neck, planted a long wet kiss on his lips. He felt her fingers find and caress the neural socket.

She stood, arms still around his neck, grinning into his face, her dark eyes six inches from his. It was the woman he’d seen yesterday, the one who’d blown him the kiss. Her clothes still had that artsy, home-made look.

“Umm,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “Oh, shit! I’m sorry! I forgot you aren’t wearing your plug.” She laughed and her breath smelled minty. “You probably think I’m some crazy chick.” She still hadn’t let go.

“I…I know you?”

“Yeah, of course.” She winked. “I don’t go around kissing complete strangers. We work together. We’re…you know…” She shrugged, looking embarrassed but amused.

“We are?” What has Work Shawn been up to? “You sly dog,” he said.

“Pardon?” She looked up into his eyes.

“Sorry, not you. Me. Work Shawn. I had no idea he had it in him. I’d never cheat on Doris, even though she hates me. But he’s safe I guess. He doesn’t even exist outside the office.” Shawn had a thought. “Hey. What do you guys do, duck into the bathroom for quickies?”

She laughed and let go of his neck. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed. “Pretty much. You still going for that drink?” She nodded at Rancey’s. “Mind if I join you?”

“Umm. I don’t know.” Jesus he wanted a beer. How long had it been? “I don’t think I should. My wife…”

The woman shrugged. “After what you did to me at lunch, going for a drink is nothing.”

That’s true. Home Shawn knows how miserable I am and all he can do is a crumpled pastry and a hangover? I deserve better.

“Sure, one drink,” he said.

Rancey’s was about what he’d expected. Everything looked like dark wood and burgundy velour, but the wood façade was peeling and the velour rubbed bare. The woman led him to a secluded booth, weaving between tables, her hips swaying seductively. She slid onto the bench and tucked herself into the corner. Shawn, unsure where to sit, sat across the table from her. God this is strange. To think, he’d had carnal knowledge of this woman and knew nothing of it. If they’d had sex today, he was still ragingly horny.

“I don’t even know your name,” he blurted.

“Andrea.” She offered a hand and he shook it. “Nice to meet you.”

“Ditto,” he said.

“You called yourself Work Shawn.”

“Yeah. Me at work is Work Shawn and me at home is Home Shawn.”

She gave him a look he couldn’t decipher. “Who are you then?” she asked.

“Commuter Shawn.”

“That’s strange.”

Didn’t Work Shawn tell her any of this? Is he embarrassed of me? “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

The bartender appeared and Andrea ordered a double scotch, neat, and a crème de menthe. Shawn ordered a pint of Guinness. When the drinks arrived, she shot the scotch back in a single swallow and sipped daintily at the crème de menthe.

Shawn took a long pull of his Guinness. It was cold, bitter and beautiful.

“How do you remember me?” he asked. “You don’t wear a plug?”

“Nope.” She lifted her long, dark hair to show there were no neural sockets hidden beneath. Her neck was slim and her ears small. “I’m a secretary. No need for a plug, I don’t handle sensitive information.”

“Oh.” That made sense, he supposed.

They drank in silence, her appearing perfectly at ease, him shifting uncomfortably on the bench.

What am I doing here? This is crazy!

“I should probably head for home,” he said, downing the last of his pint.

She nodded agreeably and began digging around in her purse.

“Uh, it’s okay,” he said. “I’ll get this.”

“I’ll get the next one,” she offered and he didn’t know what to say to that and said nothing.

Back in the parking lot she gave him another hug. “I’d like to see you again,” she said.

“Don’t you see me every day?”

“This you,” she said, poking him in the chest. “Maybe we can go for another drink tomorrow.”

“Sure, maybe.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck again and gave him another long kiss. She tasted minty, just like before. Her tongue touched his, little more than a soft taste, and she let go. She blew him another wet kiss as she disappeared into the masstrans.

Okay, maybe I could go for another drink.

The drive home wasn’t so bad. The worst of the rush hour traffic was over, and he even listened to some of Doris’ country-twang bullshit. It wasn’t so bad; it reminded him of her and the good days they’d had.

He slid into the driveway at 7:22pm, making sure to leave Doris’ Land Rover lots of space. That was a battle he was doomed to lose.

“Home Shawn,” he said aloud, still sitting in the Bentley. “Remember the music stik tomorrow. I can’t take another drive with this country music.”

Inside the brass and marble foyer, the pastry sugar dust was gone. Once again, Home Shawn got off easy.

Shawn opened the safe and stared at the plug within.

“I get a little life too, okay? Just a taste. You owe me that.”

He reached for the plug

8:59am. Tuesday.

Shawn stood in the security cordon at SAMA.

How the fuck did I get here?

Glancing around he saw Prashanti staring at him from behind her bomb-proof glass. In his right hand were two Memory Plugs. One had the word Home stencilled on it. The other said Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer in winking green text.

Home Shawn drove to work?

“You’re going to be late,” said Prashanti.

“Fuck off,” he said without looking up from the plugs.

Home Shawn drove to work and tried to jack Work Shawn in before I could do anything about it. Why would he do that? The woman? Is he afraid I’ll have an affair? This is crazy! Work Shawn is already having an affair! What does it matter if I get a little something too. My whole life is sitting in traffic!

“Okay,” he said to the two plugs, knowing both Home Shawn and Work Shawn would remember this moment. “Don’t do that again. You have to allow me something, just a little moment of happiness. Work Shawn is already having his fun. I just want a tiny bit of what he has. Okay? Don’t be selfish.”

He dropped the Home plug into the hopper and jacked the Work plug into his neural–

5:14pm. Tuesday.

–socket.

Shawn stood in the SAMA security cordon, the Work plug in his right hand. The Home plug sat in the hopper, awaiting him. Collecting the Home plug, he dropped the Work plug into the hopper. At least Work Shawn hadn’t tried anything sneaky.

As he turned away, Prashanti called out, “There’s a message for you from inside. It’s being vetted by security. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.”

“A couple of minutes is all I get,” he said, turning to leave. “I’ll get the message later.”

Andrea was waiting for him outside.

Are those the same clothes she wore yesterday, or just really similar? He couldn’t tell. Fashion and clothes had never been of much interest. If women were a mystery, artsy women were something far beyond that, like the last digit of pi. Doris was all about the numbers, just like him; she made sense, he could understand her. At least some of the time.

“You get out early?” he asked as Andrea approached.

She grabbed his face, and dropped a long wet kiss on him. She tasted of mint.

“Hi,” he said when she finally let go.

“What a day,” she said. “I could use a drink.”

“Sounds good to me.”

At Rancey’s she ordered a double scotch and a crème de menthe, banging back the scotch with a contented sigh. “What a day,” she said again.

Shawn sipped at his Guinness. “What happened?”

“Well for one thing, you and I didn’t get a chance to…” she waggled her eyebrows.

“We didn’t?” His face flushed hot with embarrassment.

“Sometimes I wish I wore a Memory Plug,” she said longingly.

“Why? What happened at work?”

She shrugged non-committally. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.” Then why did she brought it up? Am I supposed to keep prying, or just drop it? Uncertain, he hid behind another sip of Guinness.

She glanced at her purse and swore.

“What?” he asked.

“I left my wallet inside.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll cover the bill. I might as well. I think I’m trying to kill myself.”

Andrea raised an eyebrow and sipped at her crème de menthe. “Joking, right?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “This morning Home Shawn tried to jack straight to Work Shawn and skip me altogether. And then Work Shawn left me a message–“

“Shit,” she swore with feeling.

“What?”

“I guess this means…” she trailed off, staring into her drink.

“You know how long it takes to get a message through security. If they didn’t mind us getting information out, we wouldn’t be wearing these Memory Plugs, right? They have to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb to make sure we’re not sneaking company secrets out. It’s too easy to come up with some kind of code to hide numbers, and numbers is what I do.”

She looked up from her drink, eyebrows crinkled in confusion. “What?”

“I wasn’t going to wait that long. Home Shawn is already angry enough with me coming home late. I wanted to come have a drink.” He smiled at her, uncertain. “With you.”

Andrea exhaled slowly. “So you didn’t get the message.” She downed the last of her creme de menthe and ordered another round of drinks from the bartender with a circular hand gesture Shawn would never have understood. “What do you think the message was about?” she asked.

“No idea.” she watched, waiting. “Oh. You, I guess.”

“Maybe work-you doesn’t want us to see each other. Maybe he’s jealous.”

“Jealous?” That didn’t feel right. “I didn’t say anything about this at work?”

“What? Oh! No. Nothing.”

The drinks arrived. He hadn’t planned on a second pint, but what the hell. Once again she shot the scotch back in one smooth motion, seemingly unaware of the flavour, and then sipped at the crème de menthe.

“Why would I be jealous of me?” Shawn asked, thinking aloud.

“He thinks he’s safe at work,” she said. “But if you and I hook up out here…”

“Doris might find out.”

“He doesn’t want you to have the same fun he has,” she said.

Fun? That’s a strange way to put it. What exactly did he share with this woman while plugged in? Asking seemed the only way to find out, but his bluntness almost always got him into trouble. Maybe he could coach it in less harsh terms. “Um. What exactly–“

“And home-you tried to plug straight to work you, right?”

“Yeah, but–“

“They’re trying to cut you out,” she said quickly. “You’re right, they’re killing you. All you’re going to be is the seconds between plugs.”

Why didn’t I see that? What if Home Shawn drove to work every day? Were they counting on him being unwilling to ruin their cosy lives? What kind of gutless coward do they think I am?

They know exactly who you are.

Shawn finished his Guinness and slammed the glass to the table. He made the same circular gesture Andrea had and the bartender ignored him. Had he done it wrong? Andrea was watching.

“Two more,” he called out and the bartender nodded.

But I’m not without power. They needed him. Home Shawn proved it wasn’t possible to jack straight into Work Shawn without him having enough time to interrupt the process. The instant the Home plug came out, he was in control.

He was going to be home late. Fuck it. Home Shawn can come up with some excuse.

“You look like you’ve made up your mind,” said Andrea, leaning in close. He smelled the mint on her breath and felt the warmth of her skin.

“Do you live near here?” Shawn said before he could change his mind.

Her eyes widened. “No.”

Oh thank god! Relief flooded through him. He changed the subject, trying to cover that he’d nearly suggested they go to her place. “You know me more than I know you.”

She nodded, nibbling on her lip and frowning slightly. “Yeah.”

“Do you like me?”

She laughed, her eyes bright. “Yeah.”

That was something, but not what he really wanted to know. Should I just ask? Was there some way of doing it subtly? He couldn’t think of one. “A lot?”

She put her hand on his. “You’re okay,” she said teasingly.

“And obviously Work Shawn likes you. If he didn’t, he would never…” He couldn’t even say cheat out loud. How did Work Shawn ever manage the nerve to do this?

“Definitely.”

“So we–you and I–just need a chance to get to know each other.”

“That would be nice. So would another drink.”

“Whoah. You can put ’em back.”

Andrea lifted a thin eyebrow in askance.

“Sorry I didn’t mean to…” Shawn ordered another round of drinks. He probably shouldn’t drive after this, but what the hell. Would Doris taste the beer on Home Shawn’s breath and wonder what he’d been up to? Did they still kiss? She’d been a great kisser. She put her soul into every kiss.

“What are you thinking about?” Andrea asked.

“Let’s do this again tomorrow,” he said. “And the next day.”

“Okay,” she said softly. Did she seem a little sad?

Did I say something wrong? Should I ask? No, that would be weird.

They chatted for another half hour as he finished his Guinness.

“Do you need a lift home?” Shawn asked, pushing his chair back and standing. He felt a little wobbly.

“No, I’m going to stay a bit longer. I’ll have dinner here first.”

“What about your wallet?”

“Hmm?”

“You left it at SAMA.”

“Oh! Right! I totally forgot.”

“I’ll leave enough to cover your dinner.”

“Thanks,” she said, touching his hand again. “Tomorrow is on me.”

Shawn leaned down and kissed her before he could chicken out. Her lips were soft and warm, her breath minty.

In the Bentley, the country-twang bullshit started the moment he sat. Bastard forgot my math metal. Wait, Home Shawn listened to this the entire drive here? On Purpose? That was just downright creepy.

The drive home was slow not because of traffic, but because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact he was most likely over the legal Blood Alcohol Limit. Inside the brass and marble foyer he stood, holding the plug before his eyes.

“Okay, Home Shawn. I’m home a little later than I should be and I smell like beer. I’m sorry if this gets you into trouble. But I need a little taste of life too. You remember what it’s like being me. Give this to me or…” Shawn scratched at the stencilled word Home with a fingernail. “If you try that again, if you drive to work and try and cut me out altogether, I’ll destroy this plug. You can’t stop me. All I need is to be in control for a fraction of a second. Understand the balance of power here. Either I get what I want, or no one does.”

7:43am. Wednesday.

Shawn stood in the foyer, the Memory Plug in his right hand, a hastily scrawled hand-written note in his left. Shawn read the note from Home Shawn.

Don’t do this. Things are bad enough. Tell the woman you can never see her again. Work Shawn, break off whatever the hell you’re doing at work. You fucking idiots! We’ll figure something out, some way you can have the life you need. You’re going to ruin everything. End it, both of you. If you don’t, I’ll leave the Home plug in forever. I’ve got enough to retire, I don’t need you any more. And destroy this note. I don’t need Doris finding it.

Was that true? Could Home Shawn retire and leave the plug in forever?

“You’re threatening me? I’m the real Shawn. I’m the one without the plug!” Shawn released the note and watched it drift to the floor. “And if you can afford to retire, so can I. You made a mistake; you unplugged.” He dropped the plug into his pocket.

The drive to SAMA was the most relaxing hour he’d lived in the last three months. There was no rush. He’d get there when he got there. If he was late, he didn’t care.

After slinging the Bentley carelessly into his parking spot, he sauntered through the lobby, nodding at people as he walked, and into the security cordon. Prashanti looked up as he approached.

“I know,” he said. “I’m late.”

She huffed indignantly and the hopper opened with a sad sigh. Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer winked at him and he winked back.

“Fuck you too,” he said scooping up the plug. Fishing the Home plug out of his pocket, he examined the two plugs nestled in the palm of his hand. “Fuck both of you.”

He dropped the plugs to the floor and brought his heel down on them. The hopper sighed again and Prashanti said something he didn’t hear. Again and again he stomped the two Memory Plugs until they were shattered ruin.

Shawn glanced towards the bomb-proof glass. Prashanti stared at him in horrified shock, her mouth hanging open.

“Sorry,” he said calmly. “I didn’t hear that.”

She glanced at the open hopper and reached for something out of his sight. He saw it immediately. Having destroyed the plug, he no longer worked here. She was going to close the hopper. Shawn snaked out a hand and plucked the waiting note before the hopper slid closed.

An alarm sounded and suddenly there were half a dozen security guards rushing him. Where the hell had they come from? Stuffing the note into his pocket, Shawn sprinted for freedom. The guards followed him as far as the lobby and then stood at the plate-glass doors, staring at him as if daring him to try and get back in.

“Why would I want back in?” he called. Their faces were stone, expressionless. Climbing into the Bentley, he felt like his heart would pound its way clear of his chest. What an adrenalin rush! Was this the single greatest decision I’ve ever made? It felt like it. A massive weight had lifted from his shoulders. I’m free! There was one Shawn, the real Shawn Hedley.

The guards watched, waiting for him to leave.

How will Andrea feel about this?

She wouldn’t finish until 5pm. What should I do until then? Can sit here in the parking lot for eight hours. Dropping the Bentley into gear, Shawn roared out of the SAMA parking lot and into the street. He’d spend the day shopping, get Andrea something nice. She’d like that. Maybe he’d catch a matinee somewhere. When was the last time I saw a movie?

Several hours later, Shawn slid the Bentley into the Rancey’s parking lot and found a spot where he could watch the SAMA entrance. Starting around 4pm people began exiting, heading for home. There was a rush around 5pm and dozens of people left at the same time, talking and joking together. After that it slowed to a trickle.

Must be working late.

His stomach grumbled with hunger and he decided he’d eat at Rancey’s. He sat where he could watch the SAMA entrance. The same bartender he’d seen on the last two evenings was working.

He ordered and ate a burger and fries, washing it down with two pints of Guinness. Still no sign of Andrea. He hoped his actions hadn’t caused problems for her. When the bartender glanced in his direction he tried that circular waving motion again and this time it worked. As the pint was delivered, Shawn cleared his throat.

“Umm. That woman I was in with yesterday…”

The bartender said nothing, waiting.

“Does she come here a lot?”

“For the last week, all the time.”

“Every day after work?” Had she been trying to work up the nerve to talk to me?

“No,” said the bartender. “She’d spend a couple of hours here in the afternoon. Always the same thing, neat scotch, crème de menthe.”

The bartender turned away, leaving Shawn sitting in confusion. Long lunches? Can secretaries do that?

By 7:30pm he’d finished his fifth pint and was sure he’d somehow missed her leaving. Either she’d been in that mob at 5pm, or she’d left when his bladder finally forced him to visit the dingy bathroom.

What now, genius?

A hotel for the night. Damned if I’m going home to face Doris in this condition. He’d come back tomorrow. Maybe Andrea worked an early shift and got out at 3pm, or something. It was possible, she’d always been waiting outside for him.

Reaching into his pocket for his wallet, Shawn found the note. It was typed, yet another security precaution to guarantee he couldn’t smuggle what he knew out of the office.

Like that matters now.

I don’t know Andrea. She doesn’t work here.

Shawn’s stomach soured around the greasy burger. This can’t be the entire message, there should be more. If she doesn’t…

But he’d stomped the plugs. His stomach convulsed and he fought down the sudden need to vomit up his dinner.

No no no no. What have I done?

He swallowed bile, choking it down.

Wait, maybe it isn’t too late. Christ, the note! Had Doris’ Range Rover still been in the driveway when he’d left for work? Yes. She always left after him. Unless the cleaners got it first.

Shawn dropped a wad of cash on the table and sprinted for the Bentley. He made it home in twenty minutes, fear and adrenalin leaving him coldly sober. As he roared up the driveway, he spotted the Range Rover, parked where it always was.

She was home already.

Once inside the foyer he saw the safe hanging open. Did I leave it open? He couldn’t remember. The note still lay on the floor. Was it possible she hadn’t noticed it?

Shawn snatched up the note, stuffed it into a pocket. He grabbed the key from the open safe and approached the door. The note, Plug in before entering, was there as always.

The house was eerily quiet.

“Hello?” he called.

Nothing.

Everything looked different. It had been months–no, years–since he’d been in here. The place felt barren and some of the furniture was missing. Otherwise, it was spotless.

“Hello?” he called, louder.

Again nothing.

Shawn walked through his home, everything familiar and yet different. Most of their wedding pictures were missing from the walls. He looked around the living-room in confusion.

Wait. It was Doris’ favourite antique furniture that was missing. She couldn’t have moved it all out that fast. Could she?

In the kitchen he found the counter littered with empty microwaved dinner packages. He knew what he’d find in the bedroom and wasn’t surprised to discover her closets empty.

This doesn’t make sense.

Unless she’d moved out ages ago.

Eyes stinging, Shawn sat on the bed, his hands hanging between his knees. He felt ill, nauseous to his very core. He blinked and tears ran down his cheeks.

Home Shawn had hidden it from him. Why? Who or what was he protecting?

He’d never know. Home Shawn was dead.

He had to talk to Doris. She can tell me what happened.

After a frenzied search of the house that left the place looking like it had been ransacked, Shawn found a cellphone with a number for Doris. He recognized neither the phone nor the number. He took the cell into the kitchen, looking for a drink. There was an open bottle of gin on the counter, half a bottle of flat tonic water in the fridge, and no ice cubes. It would do. He fixed a drink and sat at the breakfast bar.

I’ll call. Maybe, if I tell her what I’ve done…

“What, she’d come back to you?”

He hesitated, phone in hand. She hates unplugged me. If she left Home Shawn, what chance do I have?

Shawn put the phone down on the counter.

He knew who he’d been protecting. The commute was better than this. She was gone.

He understood. Home Shawn lived for that moment every morning when he unplugged and forgot everything. Maybe Commuter Shawn never got to see her, but at least he still thought he had her.

Oh god I wish I could unplug now and let all this fall away.