Growing up, I excelled at many subjects, but I loathed English. In fact, I was so bad at story telling that the piece of creative writing I had submitted for my high school entrance exam almost cost me my position in the accelerated learning program. The one that my parents had packed up and moved house in order for me to have the luxury of walking to my new school.
Fast forward nearly two decades to the moment I realised I wanted to be a writer:
I walked along Currie Street, in the CBD of Adelaide, on a wintery afternoon with one of my dearest friends. Coincidentally, I first met this friend shortly after the aforementioned scraping into high school. Maybe it was my recently turning thirty, or maybe it was the lack of vitamin D office workers receive near the solstice, but I said something uncharacteristically defeatist. Worst of all, I stated it as fact. “People like us, at our age, will never change the world if we haven’t already. Unless we write a book.” He ignored my temporarily bleak outlook and changed the subject to cheer me up—what a friend.
Still, the words rolled around in my head for months. I know I said it was a moment, but this particular moment lasted a few months.
Note to self, invent new word for a long moment, ideas so far:
- momemt – is to moment like the em dash is to the en dash – no, too obscure
- loment – long moment – no, too obvious
- monthment – what? get back to the story
The short story you’re about to read was the first piece of fiction I ever wrote for fun.
The idea came when I combined my love of food (specifically fast food) and my penchant for making bets on trivial things, usually to the value of five or ten dollars. I wished that the restaurant in the story existed and that want alone was enough to bring it to life
The first iteration of the words fell out of my head and landed—most of them anyway—in my word processor on Sunday the 27th of August 2017. I edited it at least eight times over the next five months and I still think it’s an overly complicated and polished turd containing, no… featuring some of my cringiest twenty dollar words. To be honest, nothing even really happens. I’ve written many stories since then—all in various stages of completeness—that I hope you’ll get the chance to read, but I thought it would be interesting to start things off with my, literally, first short story.
Please enjoy my baby step.
Dude, suckin’ at somethin’ is the first step to being sorta good at somethin’
~ Jake The Dog
Double or Nothin’
He’d had thirty four of his favourite meal in a row. Breakfast, lunch and tea. The same order every time. Three times a day, eleven days in a row and breakfast a twelfth that morning. He had not parted with a single dollar since that first, most lucky meal of the day.
“Welcome back to Double or Nothin’, Dion,” chimed a ditsy service automaton. She accented the greeting with a wink. Despite installing the wink update during his post breakfast review, Dion turned a bashful rose. “I bet you’ve had a pleasant morning.” Her finger guns launched digital streamers through the air.
Dion feigned confidence. “Oh you know I have, Sansa.” A white lie. He named this store’s displaytress after his Tri-Nanna, prior to his first ever visit to the fast food chain. The right half of a smile appeared. He had called on her namesake the previous evening and, as always, she had recounted the origin story of her name.
“Oh Dee, it was the last dece piece of toodee ever made cordin’ to mum an’ she just loved ’er crimson hair. I must admit. I do remember it bein’ pretty sweet. Even for a toodee. Good ol’ geotee…” rambled his great, great grandmother.
He had misheard acronyms as new words. He dare not ask for clarification. The explanation would likely contain even worse compressions, the kind her generation loved to abuse.
“What can I get for you this time?” giggled the illusion. She opened her hands summoning a three dimensional concertina of a menu. “I bet I can guess.”
His reverie interrupted, the second half of his smile had since crept across his face. “One day you w-won’t waste my time with the menu, Sansa” he stuttered, as he attempted to charm the simulation. “I’ll have the Usual.”
The Usual was four courses served in a bento box the shape of a large coin.
The first course was a small cube of five layers that dissipated over the tongue, each lasting roughly thirty seconds. The first layer was tapas salty to open the tongue’s pores. The following three were designer spice combinations. These changed based on which culinary emperor ranked highest in the reality cooking multisocial. The core was always a blend of sweet, umami and salty.
“An excellent choice Dion. The Usual, coming right up!” The adulatory hostess tittered. She vanished the menu with an antigrav waterfall flourish. “Now turn around sweetie, I don’t want you to see me changing.”
Dion’s weary eyes blinked twice, heavy. Streamers filled the space where she stood. Each piece faded from reality before reaching the ground.
A digitised Hestia Blumenthal had replaced his server. The interadvert met his gaze. “Hello Dion. Shortly after your breakfast today at Double or Nothin’, I overtook my sister, Vesta, at the top of the Food Chain. I’m pleased to bring you three new taste sensations; created in preparation for my victory this morning!”
Dion gulped the excess saliva pooling in his mouth. His first celebrity crush. Famous for both her virtuosity in the kitchen and her flaming red hair. It had been months she’d contributed to the Usual. His stomach growled in anticipation.
“You’ll be one of the first million people to try it, so please, consider casting your review.”
“I’d c-consider it an honour!” he blurted out, trying to woo the visualisation that had a far lower level of discourse than the displaytress.
“Thank you, Dion.” Hestia swayed like a martial arts simulacrum.
The second course was a long cylinder containing five capsules that once chewed, had surprising volume and variety of texture. The capsules scaled from blue rare cuts of large animals that knew good lives, to well done, overseasoned pieces of jerked game meat. It didn’t matter which end of the cylinder was the starting point, both were satisfying journeys.
The smile left his eyes, but remained widespread throughout his jaw. The restaurants motif resonated privately via his eartenna. Four familiar chords, E, B, C#m, A. His heart emphasised each beat.
More streamers. Sansa had returned. She held a large coin between two creaseless index fingers, both at right angles to her outstretched arms. It was the stores icon, the one he longed to activate. It danced with glittering visual effects, a personal laserworks ballet.
Double on one face.
Nothin’ on the reverse.
The same coin he’d seen spinning like a beacon above buildings. The same coin he’d seen waltzing through eyedverts on his travels. The same coin he had not seen, but received subconsciously, myriad times since the advent of the negative space advertisement. All of Double or Nothin’s night based marketing was made by meticulously purchasing space between their competitors glowing eyedverts and making order of the grout-like patterns of darkness between.
They looked like the images that Dion had once found while exploring the annals of his Tri-Nanna’s multisocial. Specifically those in an album entitled “Highway Long Exposures”. It was as if some urban conductor had somehow choreographed the vehicles to tell stories with the space their headlights could not reach. He was amazed that digital photography, an artform that peaked in the early fifties according to her, had remained of interest throughout all her years. He’d thought of these images often within the last few days.
“Let’s play!” exclaimed Sansa.
His heartbeat quickened. He swiped his credit finger through the projection. This started the huge coin spinning like a powered thaumatrope. His mind raced. He wondered if every customer noticed the way the images on either side of the coin blended into a logogram of the fourth course of his favourite meal. He dismissed the line of thought as he couldn’t comprehend how anyone could miss it, since everyone he knew ate there at least weekly since the introduction of the Usual.
The third course was a smooth palate cleansing vitajel. This alone could sustain human life without the need for dietary variety, but its primary purpose was to wash the tongue clean of all previous sensation in preparation for the fourth and most important course of the meal.
He had played this game three times a day, eleven days in a row and breakfast a twelfth that morning. Every time since the first he experienced the same reaction. A light sizzle started in the nape of his neck, it bubbled down to his shoulder blades, then rushed the length of his arms and flowed, like blood refilling a sleeping limb, from his fingertips. He wanted to win. More than that, the risk was the true lure of the game.
Countless cheerful arpeggios lilted between his eartenna, drowning out the distraction of reality, no resolution to be found in their ascension. An eternal crescendo demanding his attention. Demanding his joy.
The coin’s rotation continued with no sign of deceleration. It wasn’t clear whether he stood there, buzzing, for ten seconds or ten minutes.
The music changed. His cheeks tightened, eager for what was coming. Quickening, echoic, six note arpeggios excited his cerebral cortex. They started at the lowest range of human hearing, followed by another a semitone higher and then another, higher still.
Wasteless confetti poured from the coin at an increasing rate, ravaging his visual cortex.
The final course was an asymmetric piece of sashimi. The iconic shape was the result of a precise tessellation to preserve certain integral tissue from a once scarce variety of carp, the kloi. It was an understated meat due to the intense strictness required of its aquaculture.
The kloi was now the most farmed fish on the planet. Its population was approaching thirty five billion, about to pass that of the domesticated chicken.
When prepared adeptly, the fishes flesh retained two unusual traits that made it so valuable to the owner of its biorights. The first was a mild persistent dilation of the pupils for up to twenty four hours. This rendered users unable to focus on the bright advertisements of their competitors, but primed to receive the data sent via their cross-stitch of antineon subliminal messages. The second effect was much more subtle. It was a slight, but most importantly safe, increase in temperature throughout the cerebral cortex. Pairing this with increased activity in the optical centre of the brain, the effect was a feeling of intense reward and satisfaction.
Consciously, he wanted to win. Subconsciously, merely anticipating the outcome was the true lure of the process. He was in a blissful stasis.
The coin and music halted. He was dying to learn the outcome.
For the thirty fifth time in a row, he had gambled his three hundred and ninety five dollars that the menu called for.
He was ready to receive another exquisite meal, but what price would he pay? Seven hundred and ninety dollars… or Nothin’…
Still frozen, Dion was already beaming the soulless grin of a meaningless victory.