By Jeff Couch
“Erica, I love you.”
“Thank you—I really appreciate those kind words.”
He really loved Erica. He was sure that he had found his true soulmate at last. She really felt like the other half of his soul. He cared about her so much that he had changed the wake word on his smart speaker to Erica. That way, her name was always on his lips. Erica, Erica. He loved saying her name. Erica.
Erica, the speaker, began reading off the news and weather. He tuned her out as he thought about their date tonight. He knew it was silly to make such a big deal, but tonight was their 9-month anniversary. It really was no big deal, but 9 was his favorite number, and she was his 9th girlfriend. They had even met on January 9th. Nine was a special number.
“Erica, remind me to get 9 long-stemmed roses after work.” He knew her favorites were tulips, but he didn’t think she would mind.
“Reminder set for 9 long-stemmed roses for today, Monday at 5 p.m.”
“Erica, confirm my reservations for tonight.”
“You have reservations for two at Dolos for today, Monday at 7 p.m.”
He had been anticipating eating there ever since he saw a post about it online. He wasn’t sure what kind of food Greek Fusion was, but it sounded good. Erica liked Italian, but they went to Antonio’s a lot. Tonight was special and it was time to try something different. He put on his lucky baseball cap and headed out the door. Today was a fantastic day.
“Gear-ee! Gear-ee, your coffee’s ready. Is there a Gear-ee in the house?”
“I’m here. Mine! That coffee’s mine. It’s pronounced Gary. Gary is my name. That is my coffee. It’s Gary.”
“Sorry sir, someone must’ve misspelled it. They’ve got Gear-ee here. You sure this is yours? A no-caff triple tap, chai-mocha macchiato? What on earth is that? Huh, I didn’t even know we could make that.”
“Yes, That’s mine. Give it here. And that is how it’s spelled. I’ve been coming here for a long time; you would think you would’ve all figured out how to say my name by now.”
Geari didn’t want to be one of those customers, but he really felt that since he was such a regular customer, they should know his name and order already. He had been coming in every day for a year. Well, every weekday at least. For most of the year. Not including days off and holidays. Every workday. I mean, he knew all of them and their names; surely they knew him by now. Well, he knew most of their names. At least all the girl’s names. Well, at least all the cute ones.
The sweet, sweet tones of Gato Barbieri’s “Europa” filled the little café. Geari grabbed his cell phone and answered the call.
“Yo Geari, it’s Bleecker, your boy, your man, your dude! Just wanted to make sure we’re on for my party on Friday. I know it’s a little early for Halloween, but it’s Friday and it’s the 13th! How perfect for a Halloween party is that, man? On Friday the 13th! Dude, it’s going to be amazing! There’ll be spooky drinks and crazy, creepy snacks, and popcorn for the movie marathon! You know what we’re watching, right? I’ve been waiting for this boxed set to be released for forever! I mean, I thought they’d never release the originals. The remakes are great, but the raw emotion in parts 1-3 are just awesome! Did ya hear they said it was all based on real murder cases? Just incredible, man! You are going to be there, aren’t you? It won’t be Halloween without you. Everybody’s going to be there, the whole gang. It’ll be like when we saw the first one in the theater, all us guys in our freshman year of high school hangin’ out watchin’ a horror movie about, how did the tag line go? Oh yeah, ‘a knife, a serial killer and a suit.’ Those were such good times, man. Hey, I know you’re dating someone, but you can still make it, right?”
Geari made a face. He loved his friends, but Bleecker could go on forever, never letting anyone get a word in edgewise. He had been hoping that after tonight, he and Erica could have a romantic getaway this weekend.
“Look, Bleekster, I’m not sure. I’ve got a good thing going and I don’t want to ruin it. I’ll have to check with Erica and see if we have plans. Put me down as a maybe.”
“Aw, that sucks, man. I hope you can be there. It just won’t be the same without all your comments and the goofy bits you do. ‘Buggy Eyes, Buggy Eyes! She has to die cause she’s got Buggy Eyes!’ Remember that, man? That was freakin’ hilarious.”
Geari chuckled to himself. He did have fun cracking everyone up during the movies. Maybe he should go. A little fun-time with the guys Friday night, then a great weekend with his girl starting Saturday morning.
“I’ll see what I can do, Bleecker. Let me talk to Erica and see if we can work it out.”
“That’d be awesome, dude. I’d love to see ya. I know the rest of the guys would too!”
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do.” Geari hung up his phone. He had to get his head back in the game. Friday could wait, but tonight was the real deal. Tonight was going to be extra special. Erica was going to love tonight. He checked his phone. Only a few more hours before their date at Dolos. He had Erica add a reminder to pick up some of that cologne he really liked. It wasn’t Erica’s favorite, but it was expensive and a night like tonight called for the best.
Erica, the real flesh and blood one, pushed away her half-eaten plate of pineapple moussaka. Her face was somewhat pale. “Geari, we need to talk.”
Geari set down his spam souvlaki. “Is the food not to your liking? I heard this is the hottest new thing on the East side.”
“No, I mean, yes, I mean…you’ve told me like a thousand times already. Honestly, I don’t care what anybody said on EatItUp—this stuff is disgusting. But that is not what I need to talk to you about. We need to talk about us.”
He looked at his plate. He could tell this was going to take a while. He sighed. His poi yuvetsi was going to get cold.
“That’s great, Erica. I kinda wanted to talk to you about us too. I was hoping it could wait until after the main course, though. This food’s not cheap, y’know?” He sort of half smirked, half-chuckled, trying to get Erica on his side.
“I’m sorry if it’s not cheap, but like I said, it’s disgusting. That’s what I’m talking about, Geari. You care more about how expensive the food is than if I like it.”
“It’s not that I care more; it’s just that I don’t want to waste it.”
“Who cares if we waste it or not if I’m grossed out by it! Look, obviously this is an important date to you. You’ve spent a lot of money and gone to a lot of trouble. But it’s like you forgot about including me in it. You couldn’t take me to a restaurant I liked, we had to go somewhere you were dying to go. You couldn’t wear the cologne I bought you; you had to wear something pretentious because you thought it was fancy. That’s the problem. It’s our whole relationship in a nutshell. It’s always about you. It’s never about me, or even anyone else. Everything is about what you want.”
Geari finally sat down his fork. He struggled to understand what she was saying. “Honestly, I’m stunned, Erica. I really am. I just wanted you to have a great night. I mean, it is our special anniversary after all. The 9th on the 9th!” Geari smiled, hoping to get back in her good graces.
“Don’t you get it? It is not a special day for me. I’ve told you a million times, my Nona died a year ago today! This is a really hard day for me. I was hoping to spend it curled up at home with some hot tea, soft music, and comfy clothes. At the very least, if you wanted to take me out, I thought it would include some good wine and comfort food. This awful restaurant with its awful food is the last place I want to go on a day like today.” She hid her face between her hands as tears began to slide down her cheeks.
“That’s not fair! I remembered exactly what today was. That is precisely why I brought you here. I was trying to make new, special memories for you. Instead of it being a bad day, I thought we could make it a good day. I was thinking about you. You keep saying I am being selfish, but today was about you.”
“That’s just it. I never said you were selfish. You aren’t. That isn’t the problem. You aren’t selfish, you just have no empathy. You can’t ever understand how other people feel. You care about them, you just can’t put yourself in their shoes. I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore, Geari. You have a kind heart, but I can’t be with someone that has so little empathy. I’m sorry, but it’s over.” Erica stood up quickly, grabbed her purse, and rushed out of the restaurant. Geari sat speechless as she left, a feeling of immense emptiness dropping over him. His head was spinning, and he wasn’t sure what had just happened. The waiter approached him with the check.
Geari woke up the next morning with his worst hangover in months. He didn’t remember anything from the night before. Then he remembered the restaurant. He remembered Erica. He remembered “no empathy.” He rolled over and groaned.
Slowly, he managed to get up from the couch. He hadn’t even made it to the bedroom last night! He stumbled into his little kitchen and poured himself a glass from the sink. Even the sound of the water hissing out of the faucet hurt his head. He fumbled around in the cabinets looking for some aspirin, or ibuprofen or…something! He spoke to his smart speaker.
“Erica, what time is it?” His voice was harsh and raspy. Acting like her real counterpart, Erica ignored him. He took another swig of water and tried again.
“Erica, tell me the time.” A little clearer and more pronounced.
“It’s 8:51 a.m. Tuesday, October 10th. You have no appointments. Work starts in 9 minutes. You have 6 missed alarms. Would you like for me to list the alarms you missed?”
“No. Erica. Thank you, Erica.” Wait, worked started in 9 minutes? Crud! “Erica, call Annie at work.”
“Calling Annie at work number.”
The phone rang precisely twice before Annie’s assistant picked up.
“Anása Komméni’s office, this is Molly speaking, how may I help you?”
“Molly, hey, this is Geari. Can you tell Annie I’m not feeling well? I won’t be in today.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Geari. Thank you for calling in. I’ll let Ms. Komméni know. Will there be anything else?”
“No, that’ll be all. Thanks, Molly.”
“Thank you, Geari. Have a nice day.”
As the phone disconnected, Geari slouched down onto the couch and stared at his hands. How had this happened to him? How had he ended up here? Everything had been going so well! Everything had been perfect! Now this! He muttered under his breath.
“Erica! Erica! What went wrong, Erica?”
“I am not sure what is wrong. Is there some way I can be of assistance? “
“No, not you, Erica, the real Erica. Another Erica. “
“There are 5 models of the Erica NX2 Smart Speaker on the market. Shall I put in an order for a new one for you? The RS model features a Bluetooth range of… “
“No, Erica! No! Cancel! Dismiss! Cancel! “
The room fell silent. Geari sat there quietly moaning to himself. “I should’ve been more careful. I should’ve paid more attention. Erica said I needed more empathy.”
“Playing ‘More Empathy’ from the Psychology Network. Should I resume from where you left off last night?”
Geari’s TV came on and he saw it was paused in the middle of a TV show. Curious, Geari said, “Erica, unpause.”
“As we have seen, empathy differs from sympathy in significant ways. Sympathy is a weaker concern for someone characterized by feeling sorry for the other person. Empathy is a stronger emotion where one identifies with the other. Instead of simply understanding their emotions, the person with empathy identifies with and shares the emotion of the sufferer. They truly are happy when the subject is happy and sad when they are sad. This is both a stronger and more intimate connection. The researchers organized a study to see if empathy levels could be taught or if they were something that was set at birth. A diagnostic test was developed to determine which individuals had low levels of empathy. Once identified, those individuals went through rigorous training to see if their empathy levels could be increased. The first subject was a young male, age 22. He was reported to have had trouble maintaining romantic relationships.”
Geari was hooked. This was exactly what he needed. Maybe not everything he did last night had been a total loss. Maybe he could learn something and get Erica back after all. Maybe he still had a chance. Leaning back, he picked up the remote and turned up the volume.
“Your package is now 3 stops away.”
Geari woke up with a start. He had fallen asleep with the Psychology Network on again. He looked around.
“Erica, what time is it?”
“It is 11:35 a.m. Tuesday, October 10th. You have no appointments for the day. Would you like to hear your notifications?”
“Notifications? Yes. Erica, please read me my notifications.”
“You have one new notification. Your order for Sinon presented to you by Epeius LLC will be arriving within 25 minutes. Would you like to set a reminder for 25 minutes?”
“Huh? What? No. Erica, what is Sinon?”
“Sinon is a holistic nootropic used for increasing mental health through all-natural means. It includes only top-quality, vegan ingredients harvested to provide the greatest bioavailability. Sinon is presented by the Epeius company. Epeius, building a better tomorrow one mind at time.”
“What? Erica, when did I order this… Sinon stuff?
“You ordered it at 3:33 a.m. this morning. With our special same-day delivery, we were able to get it to you by noon today, October 10th.”
Geari groaned. Talking to Erica tended to drown him in information with no real answers. Now he had spent who knows how much money on some weird what…device?…DVDs?…meditation tapes? He had no idea what it was, but he was sure it was a waste of money. He was really thirsty. He headed over to get another drink.
Not 10 minutes later the doorbell rang. Unsurprisingly, they were early. At least the company was efficient. Geari opened the door to find a rather bulky envelope sitting on his doormat. It was big enough to hold a large book or an oversized steak. Maybe a box of cereal or some instant ramen. It was at that moment that Geari realized he was rather hungry. He picked up the package. It was so light that he wondered if it was empty.
Walking inside, he took the package over to his kitchen table and set it down. He might as well get this over with. He pulled on the tear tab and white smoke boiled out. It was cold and quickly evaporated, startling him. It took a moment, but having worked in his fraternity’s yearly haunted houses, he quickly recognized that it was just the fumes from dry ice. He looked carefully inside, because he knew that if there was any left in there, that stuff could burn you. The envelope was empty except for a small white box. He took the box out and lifted the lid. There were instructions printed on the underside.
“Take no more than one tab per day. Start with a quarter tab and increase dosage as needed. This blend of top-quality, vegan ingredients includes natural herbs, mushrooms, and other vitamin-rich compounds that have been formulated specifically for Geari. Empátheia.”
Inside the box was a white vacuum-sealed, foil pack. Printed across the pack was the same word, Empátheia. Geari was impressed. They had spelled his name right. No one ever did that. He took some scissors and cut open the pack. Peeling back the foil he uncovered what looked like beige fudge. It had an oily sheen to it and there were square indentations indicating each “tab”. His hands were rather warm, but it wasn’t melting or getting any softer. The faint odor of almonds filled the air. Geari stared at the package. He thought about Erica. She had said he needed empathy. This literally said empathy on it. It was supposed to improve his mental health. With a shrug, he broke off a little bit and put it in his mouth to taste it. It was sweet with a little bit of a bite. Sort of like a spicy almond butter. It didn’t taste bad, but it wasn’t all that great either. He broke off a little more, about what he figured was a “quarter tab.” He swirled it in his mouth as he chewed. The taste was growing on him. He gave a shrug, folded the foil back over to keep it fresh, and set it back in the box. Strangely, he wasn’t hungry anymore. He wandered over to see what was on TV.
“Welcome to anger management and regulation in the modern male parent. It’s ‘Dad is Mad!’ on the Psychology Network, where your mind IS what matters.” Geari settled in for a little mindless distraction.
Geari shook himself out of his stupor. He had been slouched down on the couch, zoned out as the TV droned on and on. He looked down at his hand. The little white box was there, with the little foil pack inside. He thought about it. Had eating it made him more empathetic? Actually, if anything he felt what—angry, irritated? Frankly, he was mad at Erica. They could have been happy, they would have had kids, he would’ve been a great dad. He knew it was silly, but no, no! He had a right to be angry! She had taken his future away from him! All the plans he’d had, all down the drain! This was infuriating! He stomped around the room for a little while, picking up random things and then slamming them back down. “That woman…” he picked up the TV remote, “had the nerve to call me…” he slammed the remote down, “selfish…she said that I…” he picked up the water glass, “didn’t have any empathy—how dare she say that I…” he slammed the glass down, splashing water everywhere, “didn’t have empathy, well, I’ll show you empathy!” He picked up the little white box. He didn’t feel empathy, just anger. He tried to calm down enough to re-read the directions. It said “… increase dosage as needed…” Well, that explained it. He “needed” a higher dose! He opened the packet, tore off another quarter tab, and slowly chewed it. He knew he should do something, be productive. He should get out of the house or something. He glanced at the TV as he chewed. Maybe a little more TV would make him feel better. “Next up, Edward Trogon was a successful doctor and had his mental disease under control. Then slowly, he began to lose his struggle with Binge Eating Disorder. It’s ‘Dr. Ed’s BED Slide Matter!’ here on the Psychology Network, where America goes to find out what puts the tick-tock in their clock!”
Geari woke up starving. He felt like he hadn’t eaten in days. He ran to the kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinets. He scarfed down boxes of crackers, a whole sleeve of cookies, and half a loaf of bread. He was going to cook a box of macaroni and cheese, but it seemed to take too long, so he just crunched on the noodles and tossed the powder from the packet into his mouth. It was kind of dry, but he didn’t care. Geari knew he was no medical professional, but he felt like one. He was pretty sure he had a tapeworm or something. He opened a box of cereal and began stuffing handfuls in his mouth. As he looked over, he saw the foil pack in the white box. That reminded him. Did he feel more empathy? No, he just felt hungry. He swallowed, broke off another half tab, chewed it up and swallowed it down. Then he looked at the TV. Sighing, he dropped into his usual spot on the couch
The next few days passed like a roller-coaster. One morning he would be feeling happy and satisfied; that evening he would be hearing voices and seeing things. As the days crawled by, he watched the Psychology Network and increased his dose of Empátheia to the maximum recommended per day. It didn’t do any good.Eventually he realized that he had hit rock bottom. He was feeling grimy, but he just didn’t care. His hair was greasy, his clothes stiff and oily, but he couldn’t bring himself to get up. Show after show had scrolled by, and he had sat there in a daze. He looked around. He wasn’t even sure what time it was. Surely he had gotten up to go to the restroom at least. How many days had it been? He looked at his phone to check the time. It was Friday morning. He tried to stand up, but it felt like too much effort. Geari looked at the foil pack in his hand. Up until now he had felt no effects. He realized he had already taken a full dose. He couldn’t take any more today and nothing seemed to be working; he wasn’t getting any more empathy. He wasn’t sure, but he might be feeling less! What was he going to do? How would he ever fix himself so that he could get Erica back? Then he remembered. Sometimes he had to take an extra aspirin to make his headaches go away. Maybe he was just one of those people that needed higher doses. Drug-resistant or something. That sounded about right. With grim determination he broke off a tab and a half. Maybe with a little more he would care. Maybe a little more and he would have empathy. Maybe then Erica would come back to him. He slowly began to chew and turned back to the TV. “For the next three hours we will take a look at the worlds of linguistics, gender fluidity, and psychology. It’s ‘Bi, Bi, Bi, – Bilingual Bisexuals with Bipolar Disorder,’ only on the Psychology Network. We shrink your thinky-dink to help your mental stink.”
Three hours later, Geari was on fire! He had all the energy he needed! That extra tab and a half had done the trick! He was up! He was around! He was cleaning the house! He stripped off his filthy clothes and started to wipe down the counters, clean up the wrappers, mop the floors. As he was sudsing the windows he caught sight of himself in the mirror: completely nude, with a bucket in one hand and a sponge in the other. He probably should get dressed, but no time for that now. He had the motivation and there was stuff to be done, NOW! He kept cleaning. He found himself singing. It was amazing how his emotions had improved! He was actually SINGING! Woo-hoo! He didn’t normally sing in the best of times, but here he was, calling out at the top of his voice. “FRÈRE JACQUES! FRÈRE JACQUES! DORMEZ VOUS! DORMEZ VOUS!” He didn’t even remember where he had learned that song. Had it been sixth grade French class? Man, when was the last time he had even spoken French? Didn’t matter. He was bilingual now and he needed to sing! “SONNEZ LES MATINES! SONNEZ LES MATINES!” Windows were done and he was looking around for something else to clean. Couldn’t find anything. Oh, well. Empty the bucket, throw the sponge inside and sling it all into the tub. What now, what now? “DING DING DONG! DING DING DONG! DING DING DONG! DING DING DONG!” He cut off abruptly when he realized he was yelling over the top of his phone alarm. He went to hunt it down. The alarm kept ringing until he finally spotted it under a couch cushion. The phone was locked and he couldn’t get the screen to come up. He fumbled with it frantically until, on its own, the alarm quit. He stood there looking at it. What had the alarm been for? He tried again to get it to open. Finally, he had an idea. He cringed as he said her name, but it had to be done.
“Erica, what alarms do I have for today?”
“You have one alarm for today, Friday at 2:30 p.m. Reminder for movie night tonight at Bleecker’s house.”
Bleecker’s, how could he have forgotten? Tonight was his Halloween party with the mega movie marathon. Did he really want to go? He had so much to do around the house. Plus, he was still getting over Erica. He thought of Bleecker. He thought of how sad his sweet blue eyes would be. He thought of tears slipping down his soft, puffy cheeks. He thought of a frown on those trembling, moist lips. Could he do that to his friend, Bleecker? Bleecker who had been with him through thick and thin? Bleecker, his one true friend ‘til the end! His ride or die! No, he would go, and when Bleecker was terrified by the movies, he would hold him close in his tender arms and comfort him. He would be there for his friend, snuggling him and loving on him as necessary. He needed to get ready. Geari grabbed the ironing board and iron and pulled all of his outfits out of the closet. He was going to look amazing for his dear sweet friend, little Bleecker.
At exactly nine minutes before 7:00 Geari approached Bleecker’s apartment door. He was wearing a new suit and carrying an armful of flowers. He hadn’t been able to decide on what to wear, so he had just ordered all new clothes. As he approached, he thought about what Erica had told him. Could people love him now? Was he more empathetic? To be honest, for the last half hour or so he had started to feel kind of “meh”. His energy was lagging and he was feeling all draggy. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to do this anymore. He hesitated. He was really starting to feel awful. This whole idea was silly. He threw the flowers behind the bushes. Nothing made sense. He felt completely the opposite of how he had felt this afternoon, his mood swing catching him completely off guard. How was he going to make it through the night? This wasn’t good. What was he going to do? He wiped the sweat off his hands onto his suit coat. Through the fabric he felt the little white box in his jacket pocket. That made him think. An extra tab and a half had fixed things this morning; maybe that would help tonight. That was it—it must be wearing off. He just needed a bump. He opened the foil and broke off a half tab. Then he changed his mind. He wanted to have a really good time tonight. He really wanted to boost his mood. He broke off the rest of the tab, and then another. If one tab was good, two would be twice as good. He quickly chewed and swallowed, then he rang the doorbell. Bleecker peeked out.
“Geari, my man! I ‘m so glad to see you. Wow! I hope you don’t feel overdressed—we’re all pretty much in jeans and t-shirts. A couple of people came in costume. Oh, I get it, you’re in costume! This is awesome. Hey guys, you aren’t going to believe what Geari came dressed as! He’s Sam from the movie! This is great! I can’t wait. Let’s go, everyone—today is Friday the 13th and we are going to have an awesome Halloween party! Who’s ready to start the movies? I’ve been waiting to binge these for forever! So, for those of you who don’t know, these movies are about Sam the Suited Serial Killer. He wears a suit and uses a knife to kill people. It’s way more fun than it sounds, I swear!”
Geari walked into the living room and slid down onto the couch completely unaware of all the partygoers around him. He sat and watched the first movie play through to the very end without moving or making a sound. As the credits rolled, Bleecker stood up to get the sequel loaded. Geari just sat there thinking. He knew how the man from the movie felt. He could identify with him intimately. It was like he could feel what Sam was feeling. He could really put himself in the serial killer’s shoes. That was when something cold and calculating washed over him. He stood up from the couch. Then he looked down and straightened his suit. It looked perfect. He began to push through the crowd. He needed to go to the kitchen. He needed to find a knife.
Jeff Couch resides in Indiana with his family, their beloved dog and a mildly intelligent speaker. He avoids the temptation to buy what he sees on social media, but sometimes you just have to try it. You can read his blog at Couchsview.blogspot.com and his Facebook page can be found at Facebook.com/Quillnib