by Anoop Anthony
It was after 7:00 PM and the night crowds at Malik bazaar thronged within its tight lanes. Stores of all kinds lined the bazaar’s alleys — tourist traps selling souvenirs, street food kiosks, hole-in-the-wall apparel stores (most of it junk), and the ubiquitous VR cafes that one found all over the city.
Pawan slouched past the shops in the rain as he headed for the JB Metro station. It had been a long day, and his legs ached from all the sales calls he’d made today, trudging from one mobile retail store to another at the city’s center to sell high volume 9G and fiber data plans. He’d achieved his sales target for the day. Not that it made much of a difference; he needed to hit much higher numbers to put a dent in his debts. His meager salary and stingy commissions were barely enough to sustain life in this obnoxiously expensive city, let alone pay off his loans.
But sales was tough. The competition was fierce and there were too many players in the data market. Modern India had a monstrous appetite for bandwidth, its online millions and their devices an insatiable digital maw.
His earphone buzzed and the word ‘Office’ flashed in his glasses in the upper right of his line of vision. He groaned. The message read, “We need more 9Gs out. At this rate, you’re not even going to earn your salary – Manoj.”
He acknowledged the message and blinked it away.
This fucking job, this fucking city. One fall — a single missed payment, a month without commission — and you slid down a slippery slope into an abyss of debt you could never climb out of. The banks hounded you to death, unemployment haunted your every step. He’d been lucky to get this job at all.
He passed a neon holographic sign which seemed to be levitating a few feet above him, flashing the words The Singh Bros VR Cafe. He slowed to a stop and stood outside the dark glass doors of the cafe looking up at the sign.
Keep walking, keep walking.
What he wouldn’t give for an hour in there. It would cost a few hundred rupees, more money than he had to spare, but it would be worth it just to go in there and work it all out.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, gazing up at the sign. Eventually, he turned away and continued on to the metro station. If he was late to get home again, there would be another bitter fight with Meera, and the last thing he needed was more shit from her. These days, she seemed to find any excuse to attack him.
* * *
He stepped out of the Nilgiri II district metro station and trudged down narrow, garbage-strewn streets for two blocks until he arrived at his apartment building. Once, perhaps half a century ago, this had been a mid-market neighborhood. Now it was just short of being a slum. The city had expanded, new and wealthy sections springing up for those who could afford to move there.
He went up the tired old elevator to the fortieth floor and stood outside his apartment door. He stared at it unseeingly for a moment, then opened the door and stepped in.
His legs throbbed miserably. He was thirty-five, but he felt (and, he supposed, looked) older. He ached all across his body, had constant headaches, and his stomach was always in a state of unease. It was the lifestyle, the endless stress, the rampant pollution, the bad food habits, the greasy crap he ate for lunch every day. All of it probably fucked you at a cellular level, made you die faster (Which wasn’t such a bad thing, really — there were days when the thought of checking out early sounded attractive as hell).
He headed for the bedroom. He would have a hot bath, grab a bite, and go right to bed.
“Pawan?” Meera called from the kitchen, She emerged wearing a blue sari and blouse that exposed a flaccid, expanding belly. Her eyes looked puffed and her mascara was smeared around her eyes (oh God, she’s been crying). Her hair was a mess. She was holding a ladle from which a thick brownish goop dripped to the floor. She appeared not to notice.
In the fourteen years of their marriage, she had grown beefier, a few kilos every year. She was not yet obese, but close. It was as if the woman he’d married had been swallowed whole by the fat, belligerent creature standing before him.
He said, “Let me guess. You had a fight with your mother?”
Which was the wrong thing to say, because her face began to work.
He stood by the front door knowing exactly what he was supposed to do but unable to do it — when a man’s wife was distressed, he was supposed to go to her and comfort her, ask her what was bothering her, maybe attempt to help her with whatever was troubling her (God help him). But Pawan was unable to move. He stood where he was, his office bag dangling from his left hand.
I should turn right around and leave, just keep walking.
Because he knew exactly where this was going.
She began to cry, making a low pitched keening sound (“Eeeeee, Eeeeee”), interspersed with words. “Amma told… she said… Bawaji…. Mithun gave gold for Savanya’s wedding. Bawaji said…”
He had no idea what she was talking about. He had long stopped trying to remember the names of her various relatives, and it had been a long time since he’d accompanied her to visit her toxic family.
He stood where he was, and when he could put if off no longer, he moved towards her like a man lugging a great weight.
She glared at him, her body heaving with sobs, “Why are you… why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like you’re.. suffering! I am the one who is suffering, not you, and it’s all because of you!”
“I wasn’t- ”
“Do you know what Buwaji told Mama today?”
He waited. Here we go.
“Buwaji said that Mithun is giving two gold chains to Savanya for her wedding gift. Two!”
He shut his eyes.
“You know what we’re giving?” she cried, “One gold coin. 50 grams. This is what our situation has become. ”
Mithun was her sister’s husband. He wasn’t sure who Savanya was. Possibly her cousin; he vaguely remembered her saying something about a cousin’s wedding a week ago.
“One gold coin,” she said, “They are all talking about it. ”
“It’s all we can afford,” he said. “It’s not my fault your sister married a rich guy. We can’t spend the way they do. ”
“How can I face Buwaji. You know what they gave us for our wedding?”
“Two necklaces and five bangles.”
He said, “You know how hard I’m trying. Jobs are impossible to find these days. I was lucky to get this one. I’ll have to wait at least a year for a promotion and a raise.”
She began to weep anew, “Mama was crying. She knew what Buwaji was really trying to say. ”
Go to her, maybe put an arm around her. But he couldn’t move; his legs wouldn’t respond and instead of sympathy all he felt was a kind of low-grade revulsion. He realized he was clenching his fists, and he loosened them.
“And you! You don’t even care,” she cried, “You don’t care how humiliating this is for me. You leave in the morning, and you come back at night, you don’t look at me, you don’t talk to me. When was the last time I bought some gold? I don’t even have anything to wear for the wedding.”
Gold, she wants gold, he thought, incredulously.
“Stop looking at me like that,” she screeched. And without warning, in a single motion, she flung the ladle at him. It spun through the air, trailing brown goo, and came right at his face. He dodged it easily, and it struck the wall behind him and bounced away, leaving a shit-brown stain of dripping gravy on the white wall.
He took a step towards her. He realized that he was still clutching his office bag in his left hand.
Her eyes widened, and her lips stretched in a sneer. “What will you do? Hit me? Go on, hit me. Let’s see you do it. ”
A thought (a memory) sprang up: an image of her lying dead on the floor in a growing pool of blood, her body covered in gaping wounds, a black, singed hole at the center of her forehead. He tried to push the image away, but another one came; he saw himself holding a knife, a great butcher blade, and he was stabbing, stabbing, stabbing…
He stood before her, breathing heavily, glaring… then he let out a sigh, and his shoulders sagged. His hands were shaking. “Look, it’s been a long day. Your mother always does this, she winds you up, and then you -”
“Don’t you dare blame my mother,” she screamed, spittle flying from her mouth.
“Alright,” he said, “Who do I blame then? You? For not having a fucking spine? For not being able to stand up to them?”
The words were out before he could stop them. They had spilled out of his mouth like festering blood.
Her eyes swelled, her mouth fell open, and croaking sounds emerged, “How dare… you, how… dare… you.” Her face was going red, and her expression had taken on a vicious, mean look he was all too familiar with, “So it’s my fault?”
He said nothing.
She began to speak in a taunting, sing-song voice, “It’s my fault that my husband can’t keep a job. My fault that he can’t buy his wife any gold, my fault that we can barely meet our expenses. My fault that you can’t even provide a house for your family.”
She said those last words in a high-pitched, triumphant cry, her lips curled into a hateful smile, her eyes bright with cunning. “You think I’m a fool?” she said, “You think I don’t see the way you look at me all the time? I know why you’re still with me. You don’t dare leave, because then you’ll be homeless. Like a beggar.”
Flecks of spittle flew off her lips, the light in her eyes danced crazily.
“Beggar,” she said, “Beggar, beggar, beggar.”
He studied her without saying a word. She was flinging the shameful truth at him. She owned this apartment; it had been given to her as a wedding gift by her father, a crafty businessman who had perhaps realized that his difficult daughter would need security. It was worth more than ten crore Rupees despite the location and depreciation.
To make matters worse, she was the primary beneficiary of the large savings plan he’d taken out in the first few years of their marriage. It had been a stupid mistake — if he divorced her, she would get most of that money.
Then there was the alimony he would have to pay as per the new state laws.
A divorce would cripple him, send him spiraling into impossible debt and, yes, homelessness. (He could barely get a bed-space in the city on his salary). The terrible truth, one he rarely admitted to himself, was that he couldn’t afford to divorce her, even though he despised her and couldn’t stand the sight of her, even though their marriage was a wreck. Because he needed her more than she needed him. And she knew it.
Oh, but there were times, times when he was sorely tempted to just get up and leave, to flee, to keep going and never look back. Was anything worth this pain — the hysterics, the drama, the constant sniping and put-downs, sometimes even physical violence (once she’d thrown a pot at his head, and in his rage, he’d struck her face, causing her to threaten to call the police.) Over the course of their marriage, her tantrums and hysterics had gotten worse.
But where would he go? The banks would chase him, the banks would find him. He didn’t have the courage to leave, and she knew it.
“You bitch,” he said conversationally.
She turned and ran into the kitchen. He stared after her, shook his head, unclenched his fists once more, then followed her.
She was standing by the stove. He froze when he saw the pot in her hand. She had plucked it off the stove, and it was sloshing with boiling gravy.
First the ladle, then the pot, he thought faintly.
“Beggar, beggar, beggar,” she screamed, thrusting the bubbling stew at him like a demented fencer. Boiling hot curry leaped out of the pot and splashed hissing to the kitchen floor.
“You crazy bitch, put that down,” he said, his voice seeming to come from some distance.
“Beggar, beggar, beggar,” she chanted manically, her voice cracking. She advanced on him, brandishing the bubbling curry.
He turned and walked with mincing steps towards the front door. He felt his cheeks burn… and he was still clutching his damned office bag.
“That’s right, run,” she cawed triumphantly after him, “run, run… and then come crawling back. To my home. Where else will you go?”
He stepped out of the house, slammed the door shut behind him, and strode down the hall towards the elevator bank. He was all too aware that he was walking like a man who has been kicked in the balls. (Dead, she’s dead, she’s fucking dead) From behind him, he heard her sobbing and screeching, her words thankfully muted.
* * *
The Singh Brothers VR cafe was still open.
Pawan stepped into its dimly lit interiors. Posters of the latest VR games were plastered on the walls — Rockin’ Tuesday, Mission North, Double Life — most depicting buffed men and women sporting over-sized weapons. Glass-fronted refrigerators stocked with vibrantly colored energy drinks and craft beers ran down the length of the room. Two faux-leather sofas were set before a metal table by the window. There were no other customers in the lounge.
He marched to the reception desk, and Dalbir Singh, the proprietor, looked up. Dalbir was a tall, thin man in a crimson turban who had a stoop.
“Pawan,” Dalbir said, looking genuinely pleased to see him, “So late? No work tomorrow?”
“I need two hours,” Pawan said curtly, handing Dalbir his card.
Dalbir looked taken aback. “Sure, man. You ok?”
Pawan said nothing.
Dalbir shrugged, took the card and tapped it. “We’ve got two machines free. Which game, Double Life?”
“No, I don’t want the commercial stuff today.”
Dalbir’s eyes flickered. He lowered his voice, “Dude, are you crazy? I told you, we don’t run that shit anymore.”
Pawan studied him impassively.
Dalbir rose, came around the desk, and drew Pawan to a corner of the lounge. “They’re get-ting stricter, man. The other day they raided a cafe down the street, charged that guy a huge fine for running banned VR content.”
Pawan vaguely remembered reading an article a few months ago about the new content laws, a politician bloviating about how illegal VR programs were destroying ‘the moral fiber of India’s youth’. The state government was taking strict action against commercial VR providers hosting illegal sims. It had begun last year when the Supreme court passed a law banning VR content depicting extreme violence, pedophilia or deviant pornography. The fidelity of VR experiences, the Supreme court stated, had crossed over into hyper-realism.
Pawan said, “I don’t give a fuck about all that. I need two hours today. Come on, man.”
Dalbir hissed, “Dude, did you just hear what I said?” He narrowed his gaze, “Have you told anyone else that I run them?”
“No. But guess what, every fucking cafe in the district does it, not just you, ok?”
This seemed to ease Dalbir up a little. He hesitated, “This is the last time. And if I get fined, you’ll pay for it.”
Dalbir returned to his desk, tapped his screen, and said, “Sim room four, suit up. You have one hour.”
“I have to load in some custom data, too.”
“Yeah, whatever. Be quick.”
Pawan left the reception lounge and walked through a door that led into a garish red lit corridor. More posters of games ran down the length of the hall. Shut doors, each with a label on it, lined the hallway. “Sim Room 1”, “Sim Room 2”, “Sim Room 3”, and so on.
He walked to the fourth door on his left and stepped in. The pro-grade VR rig stood at the center of the room, a shiny metal construct that looked like a futuristic gym machine with various limbic protrusions. Hanging from a rack beside it were several bright-orange immersion jumpsuits and VR helmets.
He stripped down to his underwear and slipped into an immersion suit. He felt the familiar tingling all over his body as the suit’s tactile surfaces enveloped his skin. He put on a helmet, and the world immediately went black.
Dalbir’s voice came through, echoing in a god-like manner, “Name your poison.”
Pawan told him which VR sim he wanted, and he heard the hesitation in Dalbir’s voice. “That’s sick shit, man. ”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” Pawan snapped, “Boot it up. I’ll load in the custom data.”
“Right, and remember, don’t -”
“Yeah, I won’t tell anyone.”
* * *
Pawan stood before the front door of his apartment.
He pushed it open and walked in.
He saw his reflection in the mirror on the wall to his right. He was wearing a black t-shirt and a blank white mask with slits where his eyes and mouth should have been. Muscles rippled across his chest and down his arms.
Meera was sitting on the sofa, her back to him. She appeared to sense someone behind her. She turned and saw him. She sprang to her feet, “Who are you?”
He looked down at his hands and saw the black pistol and the butcher knife he’d picked out earlier.
“Who are you?” she screamed, “What do you want? I’ll call the police.”
He advanced on her. She ran for the kitchen, but he caught her easily. He clubbed her down with the stock of his pistol, the dull sound of it striking her skull resounding in the apartment.
She lay at his feet, clutching the back of her head, writhing. Blood sprayed out from be-tween her fingers.
He knelt beside her.
“Please,” she whimpered.
“Let’s see who’s going to beg now,” he growled.
He got to work.
She didn’t stop screaming for a long time.
By the time he was done, he was panting, and his clothes were drenched in blood.
He stood up slowly, gazing down at her body. She lay in a growing pool of blood. He raised his pistol and shot her, point blank, right in the center of her forehead. He looked around at the cramped little apartment (worth crores, what a dump!). The program had done a remarkable job of reconstructing the environment, and Meera, from the pictures and videos he’d uploaded. The fideli-ty was masterful… even down to the timbre of her voice.
“Game. Restart,” he called out.
“Restarting,” the software intoned pleasantly.
The world froze and went black again, and the game’s logo sprang up and hung briefly over him — “Serial Killer Simulator – Get your kill on!”
Then he was standing once again outside his front door.
About the Author
Anoop Anthony has been writing genre-bending short-fiction for over a decade and is currently working on a novel. His previous publications include stories in the e-zines ‘The Harrow’ and ‘Anti Muse’. His short story ‘Interrogation’ appeared in Aphotic Realm’s July 2018 Dystopia issue. Anoop’s story ‘Social’ appeared in the July 2018 issue of the online eZine ‘Youth Imagination’ and his story ‘Transferred’ was published on FreedomFiction.com in July 2019.