It was late on a Wednesday night when Francis—exhausted, and feeling chewed up from a day of long pointless meetings—saw the Life in a BottleTM floating just outside her office window. It was just as pretty and sparkly as it was in the ads, even in the middle of the deep gloom of the ocean.
Huh. Will you look at that, she thought.
She’d hardly ever used the long rubber glove things they’d built into the windows that stayed stored in little portals with hinged doors, but this seemed like as good a time as any. Francis had heard that psychologists had recommended including them in building designs to make people feel a little more part of their environment. Theoretically, people were supposed to feel better if they could pick up a rock or shell or a starfish or something and maybe even keep it in on their desk as a decoration.
She opened the portal and put her arm in the glove—God, the thing felt weird, made out of some space rubber guaranteed never to rip or tear—and reached for the bottle. The spotlights on the outside of the building didn’t do a hell of a lot to brighten things up out there, but she could still see some little orange fish swimming by and something else with a dorsal fin that could have been a shark, but was probably something more benign.
And then: victory.
She’d done it. She’d grabbed hold of the bottle in her space-age-rubber encased hand.
She put it in the middle of her desk and stared at how all the little colors flickered inside of it. Really, it exceeded her expectations. At the bottom of it she could see the little chip. The electrodes in the sides really were pretty much invisible, just as the ads claimed.
Distantly, she heard a vacuum wail emptily down the hall.
“Who are you?” Francis whispered to the bottle.
After work the next night, Francis took a train to the mall to buy all the accessories she would need to communicate with the bottle; there was a Life in a BottleTM store there. According to their website, they were even having a sale.
Francis was terrified of driving. While she owned a car, she used it only to go to the grocery store and back. It had been years since she’d driven more than a few miles away. Even the trips to the grocery store weren’t that easy for her. But she liked the convenience of using a trunk instead of carrying bags on the train, so she stuck with it.
When Francis was little, there were terrible floods. Sometimes they came with storms, and sometimes they just came in suddenly six months after some giant chunk of a glacier melted on the other side of the world, even though the sky was a bright optimistic blue. She used to watch the news and see, live, as cars were swept off of bridges and coastal roads.
A childhood friend of hers, named Gracie, who had long, wavy strawberry blonde hair and who loved rabbits and lime popsicles, was in one of those cars.
For a while, she’d tried to fight it. She’d drive an exit or two beyond where she normally drove. But then she’d hear a high loud ringing in her ears and she’d tremble all over—so much so that she could feel her teeth chattering—and she’d have to turn around.
At the end of the day, she shut the door, smoothed out her jacket, and carefully placed the bottle in the dock. As she did, she admired the smooth way it clicked into place. She appreciated good design.
She set up the tiny monitor and put on the headset and pressed the button to turn the whole thing on.
“Hello,” she said carefully. She held her breath; an image was materializing in the monitor. The Life in a BottleTM logo flashed on the screen. A little snippet of the music they used in their promotional videos sang briefly in Francis’s ears.
She arranged her bangs; a nervous habit. She was self-conscious about the lines on her forehead, and did this often.
“Hello?” Now: a face. A man’s face. A large man, from the looks of it—his face was quite round. He blinked—wasn’t it amazing how the technology built in all these little gestures that made it like being alive!—and arranged his face in a familiar kind of way. A small, wry-ish smile hovered at the corner of his lips. His eyes were a deep gentle brown.
She knew those eyes, she realized.
“I know you,” Francis said, shocked. She leaned forward. “Bob? Bob, is that you?”
“Hi Francis,” Bob said, his voice warm and familiar in Francis’s ear. “How are you?”
Up until about a year ago, Bob McLaughlin used to oversee the technology textbooks division in an office just down the hall. He didn’t work directly with Francis, even though they were often in the same meetings. Bob was quiet, and seemed more interested in gazing out the windows at the fish slowly meandering past than in whatever was actually going on in any given meeting. He appeared to be fond of pens; Francis noticed that he always had an expensive one with him that he was either taking notes with or maybe doodling.
Francis respected odd interests like that. She found them increasingly rare in the world.
He was heavy, and gave the impression that he was unhappy in work clothes. Francis was in an elevator with him once. She could hear him breathe the entire time they traveled from the third floor to the twenty-seventh.
The ragged hiss of it stayed with her for a while after she left the elevator, like an echo.
Another time, Francis ran into Bob in the cafeteria on the ground floor. It must have been right before Bob left the job for good, Francis realized. It was late at night, and most people in the building were gone. Everything smelled freshly mopped. The white floor gleamed under the artificial daylight bulbs.
Francis was hell-bent on getting her usual late-evening egg salad sandwich, but once she bought it and carried it out and saw Bob sitting there alone, she hesitated. She didn’t know Bob very well, but she knew him well enough that her sense of social protocol reluctantly propelled her over to his table.
They exchanged the typical pleasantries, and then fell silent. Francis ate her egg salad sandwich, thinking wistfully that it tasted better when she was by herself. Bob was drinking a cup of coffee and staring out into the ocean, just as he did during meetings.
“Sometimes during the day, I think, ‘Okay, this is the day that I’m going to work late, and how nice it will be with nobody around,’” Bob said abruptly, “but then I’m actually here, and it doesn’t line up with the way I thought it would be.”
Francis swallowed a bite of her egg salad sandwich as she thought this over. She loved when everyone went home for the day, and it was just her and the comforting hum of the building machinery that pumped away water and prevented everyone from drowning. Most of the time, that was when she felt her work day really started.
“Do you think that you’re a people person?” she asked. It was something her mother used to ask people. It was one of her conversation starters, along with asking people how they liked to prepare their toast.
“I don’t know,” Bob said. He stared down at his coffee. “I think I want to be, but I’ve never known exactly how to be. Are you—I mean, do you think you are?”
Francis didn’t know exactly how to answer that, so she changed the subject.
“Are you disappointed?” Bob smiled tremulously from the monitor screen. Francis marveled at the facial duplication technology. Strictly speaking, Bob didn’t have a face anymore. Or a body, for that matter. Yet there he was, looking more or less like he did when he was alive. His hair even appeared to be neatly combed. “I know you were curious about who was in the bottle.”
Francis was momentarily speechless. Even with all the articles she’d read about how this worked, she’d briefly forgotten: those imprinted in bottles could see and hear what was around them at all times, no dock necessary. She searched her memory for things she’d said and done since the evening before that could potentially be embarrassing.
But then something else occurred to her. “Out of all the places in the world, how did you wind up back here?”
Bob sighed. As Life in a BottleTM participants could choose where they wanted to be placed in the ocean, he explained that he’d asked to be launched close to the office. “It was going to be symbolic for me. I was going to start from here, and leave it all behind. I did, for a while. The tracker showed that I was in the middle of the Atlantic. I saw some strange things, some glowing things …” His digitally reproduced eyes drifted to a spot over Francis’s left shoulder. “But then, eventually, I realized I was back. I could even see inside my old office. No one works in it, do they?”
“No,” Francis said. What she wasn’t going to tell Bob was that for the longest time she didn’t even realize he was gone. The email about his resignation was buried in her inbox. He’d actually been gone for six months before she headed down to his office to ask him a question about a planned line of engineering textbooks. There was nothing left in the drawers of his empty desk other than an empty nutrition-bar wrapper and a pair of earbuds. “That’s lousy luck,” she said, trying to commiserate. “I mean, that’s not what you wanted, right?”
“No!” He took a deep, illusory breath. Really, Francis couldn’t get over the faithful duplication of living Bob. She made a mental note to look up Life in a Bottle’sTM stock price. “I don’t know what I thought it would be like. To, you know, live in a bottle. I thought it sounded like an answer to my problems.”
Francis wanted to ask what problems those were. But she was afraid it might be impolite. She made a mental note to tell Doreen in the Lifestyle Department that she might want to be on the lookout for books covering the finer points of the etiquette involved in conversations between living people and people in bottles.
“I don’t know if I thought it through too much,” Bob sighed. “The thing is, Francis—I miss people. I miss their faces.” He glanced down shyly towards the surface of Francis’s desk. “The truth is that it was so wonderful to see you again.”
Francis blushed. Francis rarely blushed. It was a strange and unexpected feeling: the hotness of it. A minke whale paused briefly as it swished by the window, and appeared to be regarding her in mild surprise through a dark and unblinking eye.
“Well!” Francis said, briskly. “That’s right.” She had the sudden impression that she had loose strings on her suit that needed to be fixed. “So. What are you going to do?”
“Do?” Bob chuckled emptily. The digital reproduction of Bob laughing wasn’t quite as good as the sigh Francis had heard. It sounded like a deck of cards being shuffled. “I was actually hoping that maybe you would help. I mean, if you wanted to. You could help me find somewhere to be where there are more people around.” He closed his eyes. “Conversations. That’s what I miss.”
He was silent for a moment. “Or you could just throw me back in the ocean,” he said.
“No,” Francis said. “I want to help you.” The words sounded funny and foreign in Francis’s mouth, as if she’d had to mold them out of warm putty with her tongue.
She moved closer to the screen. How pleasant Bob’s face was! It reminded her of a cozy lamp. How had she missed seeing this when he was alive and just down the hall? Regret coursed through her in harsh waves.
She touched the screen gently. “I will help you.”
Bob’s bottle flared gently with flickering pinkish and aqua tones.
Once, Francis even tried to talk her father into the conversion process. But he never considered it seriously, even for a moment.
“Franny, that’s a ridiculous waste of money,” he’d said, coughing. “I don’t have it. Besides, why would I want to float around with a bunch of sea urchins?”
“I’d find you,” Francis said. “You know I would.”
Her father had chuckled. “That’s true. I know you’d find me. I’m not worried about that. But, Franny, really. I appreciate that you want to keep your old dad around. But it’s just not for me.”
Francis knew her father well enough not to argue the point. She just smiled and changed the topic, and successfully covered up the fact that she was heartbroken.
When talking it over, the boardwalk had been Bob’s first choice. He’d remembered going there as a child, back when it was in its original location, before the flooding started in earnest. He remembered holding his mother’s hand and smelling the salt air, and being allowed to go into the souvenir shops to pick out one thing that he wanted. His parents bought him saltwater taffy and pizza. His parents seemed happiest when they were there, which made this little version of Bob happy as well. It seemed like an enchanted place.
Bob didn’t tell all these things to Francis, exactly. But she was able to guess them from the tone of his voice.
Of course, the boardwalk was nowhere near the original location. That part of the shore had long since sunk into the sea. The odds were good that crabs were scuttling in and out of the original Ferris wheel cars, and fish were swimming through the eye sockets of skeletons in the old haunted house.
“I don’t see a lot of people here,” Francis told Bob hesitantly. They were standing in front of an arcade. Machines blinked and beeped away within the shadows. A sign above the entrance read “Emporium of Fun!” It was in the same font as every other building sign.
But in spite of her misgivings, Francis was determined to make a day of it. She felt like she owed Bob that much.
She placed Bob on top of the Pac-Man machine as she played a few rounds, and then brought him with her to the fortune-teller kiosk. It looked old, and Francis figured it was most likely rescued from a long-vanished boardwalk. It was the kind that appeared to have a fortune teller inside of it, which was actually the arms and torso of a mannequin. The mannequin’s bright red lipstick was set in a permanent grin and was fissured with little cracks. Mold delicately grazed her right cheek. Cobwebs drifted lightly around her greenish blonde hair.
Francis put in her credit card. The mannequin made a grinding sound. Its arms lurched and its neck bent alarmingly.
“What are you doing?” Bob asked.
Francis pretended she didn’t hear him; for dramatic effect, she tapped at her headset and frowned.
“Welcome,” the machine breathed at her through its speakers. The mannequin batted its plastic eyelids with a clatter. “The future reveals itself to those who want to know. Press the red button and get your fortune below.”
Dutifully, Francis pressed the red button. The machine whirred, and spat out a piece of white paper.
A bird flying over water secretly longs for the land
“What kind of a fortune is that?” Francis complained out loud.
“What?” Bob asked in her ear. The colors in the bottle fluttered, pinks and grays. “What’s going on? Are you having fun?”
“Yes,” Francis lied. She put the fortune in her pocket and stuffed the bottle in her purse, and hesitated as she looked down at it. In the gloom of the arcade, the colors and lights in the thing were really quite striking. In the midst of this artificial world, there was something so sincere about it.
She realized that she didn’t want to lie to him. Yet so much of what she was seeing was nuance that she suspected he might miss from the vantage point of his bottle.
Not that she knew what it was like to experience the world from inside a bottle. Although when she had that thought, she was reminded of the hours she spent working in her thick glass-walled office while fish regarded her impassively from the outside …
Not that it was the same thing at all.
She reached into her purse and laid her hand on the bottle. “It’s time to go back,” she said gently.
The next morning, before her first meeting, Francis blocked off half an hour on her calendar for three p.m. that afternoon. Solve Bob’s problem, she wrote.
The boardwalk had been a blunder, and Francis rarely blundered. She wouldn’t make that mistake twice, however.
She’d been doing more research on the places that accepted Life in a BottleTM residents, and was more prepared than she’d been for the first trip. A secondary market had been building up around Life in a BottleTM receptacle residents. She knew for sure that the art museum had a program of some sort. The library did as well. She wasn’t so sure about the baseball stadium, but Bob had such a cheerful glitter in his eye when he talked about it that she promised they would check it out.
Many places invited bottle dwellers and friends to stop by and check them out. It was like, Francis thought, going to open houses. Some places even offered to accept Life in a BottlesTM by mail.
Francis had mentioned this to Bob, but his eyes had gone wide with fear.
“Oh no,” he said. “What if I don’t like it? Worse, what if the box gets lost? No,” he said, pressing together his digitally replicated lips. “I can’t go in a box. Promise me, Francis. Please.”
“We’ll start on this tomorrow,” she said, tapping her pen against her desk like a gavel. “I’ll try to leave work at a normal time. And if not tomorrow, then the next day.”
“I’ll look forward to it!” Bob said joyously. His bottle flared with shades of violet.
But Francis didn’t notice. On the screen in front of her, she noticed: there was something on her calendar that she’d forgotten about for that Saturday.
Her father’s birthday.
It was something that maybe she should have taken off the calendar a while ago. Although to do so would have put yet another layer of finality on his death. Each of these steps was like checking off another box. Attended the funeral, check. Scattered the ashes, check. Not remembering his birthday, another check.
Francis was fond of lists. But not that kind.
The baseball stadium had a sign right out at the front stating that leaving Life in a BottleTM human replication receptacles was expressly forbidden anywhere within the park. Francis was disappointed; she’d liked the idea of Bob gleaming all day in the sun watching games and glittering away all night in the company of other bottles. Maybe all the bottles would devise some kind of coded method to analyze plays together. It was a lovely thought.
But of course such a thing was regulated. Why would the vast money-hungry machinery of professional sports allow dead people in bottles to watch game after game into infinity, for free? Francis wondered what had happened to her common sense.
Since she’d made the trip all the way down there, she stopped by the stadium management office to make sure there weren’t any loopholes. An old man wearing a baseball cap glowered at her from behind a little window that flipped open in a door.
“How many different ways do I need to write the word no for people to understand it? It’s not a difficult word, lady. It just has two letters.” He glanced at her purse, which was open with Bob’s bottle peeking out of the top, glimmering a gentle deep shade of blue. “And anyway, those things are creepy. The dead should stay dead. There are no gray areas, as far as I’m concerned.”
“You should put something about the rules on your website,” Francis shot back. She used her fiercest meeting voice. She’d been terrorizing conference rooms with it for over two decades and steadily honing its effects.
She wasn’t sure if it was entirely fair to use it in this context, but she was stressed. Bob’s anxiety was seeping into her day-to-day life.
The little man’s eyes grew wide, and he held up a hand.
“Yes, ma’am. You’re right, ma’am.”
Francis’s work was piling up. In all of Francis’s professional life, this had never happened. But it was starting to happen now, and Francis was getting anxious. Her inbox was full of unread emails, and her text messages were piling up, highlighted by anxious blue dots. It was taking a toll on her.
The next day after the baseball stadium, Francis took Bob to the art museum. From the museum’s website, she knew for a fact that the art museum allowed Life in a BottleTM residents.
This would be it, she thought, as she climbed the museum steps, her headset firmly in place, and Bob tucked snugly at her side. This would be the place. She’d make all the necessary arrangements. Get her life back. Everything would go back to normal.
The entire time Francis walked through the museum, she kept her eye out for the sparkle of bottles. Every time she walked into a new room she scanned the columns and high up on the walls, both places she thought it was likely that a museum might attach Life in a BottleTM inhabitants. But there didn’t appear to be any bottles at all.
She was on the verge of asking someone—how Francis hated asking people in public places for anything!—when she turned a corner and was surrounded by the hard glitter of glass.
“Oh,” Francis said, sinking onto a cold wide bench in the middle of the room. “I see.”
“What?” Bob asked. But Francis was already pulling him out of her bag, placing him next to her on the bench.
They were in the middle of an exhibit. The museum’s website had been cagey and vague. Yes, they did allow Life in a BottleTM residents to stay here. But they were placed snugly side by side, like extremely expensive tile. Little plaques announcing their names and the amount their loved ones donated were tucked at the bottom of each one.
They glimmered slowly, in cold shades of gray and lavender.
“They’re sad,” Bob gasped in Francis’s ear.
But Francis didn’t need an interpreter from the bottle world to tell her that. She could see that for herself.
“Obviously, this would never work,” Francis muttered. Protectively, she put him back in her purse.
As she did so, she imagined she could feel the bottles watching her.
The fact of her aliveness weighed heavily on her, like a burden.
The next day was Thursday. Francis had meetings all day. But Bob was getting increasingly anxious about being left on her desk.
“I’m not a paperweight,” he said sulkily.
Yet, at that exact moment, he was, in fact, weighing down a bunch of papers. Not just any papers, but examples of the wondrous new waterproof paper that Quaternary Publishing had just invented. It crinkled and rustled, just like the real thing. Francis was in charge of orchestrating a massive marketing campaign around it. Quaternary Publishing would be the first publishing house to use it in their products.
It was all so top-secret that at night the paper was even stored in a special safe.
But Francis decided not to address the whole paperweight vs. non-paperweight conundrum. She didn’t want to hurt Bob’s feelings.
“I know,” she said gently.
Late in the day, Francis received yet another new assignment. The next morning she was to deliver a presentation on her approach to marketing the new paper to a group of potential investors that had flown in from Japan. Career-wise, this was a new level for Francis. She regularly held meetings with other executives and external partners, but this meeting—and the presentation—had a level of importance that far outweighed anything else she’d done. In a world with increasingly unreliable access to both the internet and electricity, a return to paper was increasingly seen as a way to keep the publishing industry afloat.
So to speak.
Francis knew that this Japanese group of investors had money—a lot of money. And everyone knew that Quaternary Publishing was struggling. It was struggling in the genteel manner of all publishing companies, and had been for decades. But with all the current worries in the world, who knew how long the publishing industry could continue to flail away like this? People had other things to worry about other than what to read next, such as stopping their houses from floating away.
“We’re counting on you,” the CEO told Francis, as he smiled at her from across his desk.
Francis swallowed. The week before, he had fired three sales directors and the VP of Customer Happiness from this very same office. It was a magnificent office. It was on the top floor, and therefore was one of the few that was above the level of the water. Outside the window, the ocean glimmered and seethed.
“I won’t let you down,” Francis said, hoping she was right.
After her meeting with the CEO, Francis went back to her office, and plugged Bob’s monitor into the dock and put on her headset so that they could have a proper conversation. She told him they wouldn’t be able to check out any other places that day, or the next day for that matter. Once the presentation was completed, she was going to have to tackle all the other items that had been piling up while she was toting Bob around town in her purse.
“There’s just so much …” She trailed off. “Let’s go Saturday.”
On the monitor, Bob nodded. “Saturday,” he repeated. “I trust you, Francis. Do what you need to do. I’ll be right here.” He smiled at her.
Those eyes again! She wished she hadn’t plugged in the monitor.
She looked away.
Francis could feel it: she was wowing the Japanese investors.
They stared admiringly at her presentation, and asked relevant, thoughtful questions. At the end of it, Francis had her assistant bring in stacks of the actual waterproof paper. It was presented on a large shining tray, almost as if it were dessert. All five of the investors stood around with Francis and the CEO and a smattering of other executives to pick up pieces of the paper and feel it with their hands.
Everyone was delighted with how it rustled. How crisp it felt when they curled it between their fingers. This is the future, they said.
Everyone smiled at everyone else, their eyes full of hope.
Outside the window, fish darted by, fins aglow.
Late in the afternoon, Francis finally went back to her office and sat in front of her computer. It was such a relief to have the world dwindle to just a screen alone.
She glanced at Bob’s bottle but didn’t say anything to him.
Sometimes it was easier to just not think about the fact that he could see everything she was doing.
After a while, Francis realized that something was wrong. Her office was typically almost perfectly quiet, except for the murmuring of voices as people moved up and down the hall, and the occasional wail of the cleaning crew’s vacuum. Typically it was just Francis and the fish, swishing perfectly silently outside her window.
But today Francis could hear a noise: a steady dripping.
It was coming from the ceiling. A puddle was forming by her desk, and growing alarmingly large.
As soon as Francis pinged the maintenance crew on her messaging app, they appeared in her office like magic. Building leaks were taken extremely seriously. In office buildings like Francis’s, there was always a fear that the engineers had missed something critical. Some little flaw that would eventually let the ocean in and make the whole thing come crashing down.
“You’ll need to clear out of here,” said one of the maintenance guys, after he’d climbed down off the ladder he’d brought to poke around in the ceiling. He smiled at her in a kind sort of way. He gestured down towards her desk, towards stacks of folders and samples of waterproof paper and Bob. “Is there another place you can bring your things? We’ll need to work on this over the weekend.”
Francis blinked at him; with his blue eyes and wrinkled ears, he looked shockingly similar to her father. A memory, or a task, or something rose silently in the back of her mind, but didn’t quite surface. Like sensing a large fish swim by her office late at night when the ocean floodlights had been turned off.
The smell of dust swept back at Francis when she opened Bob’s closed office door. She put the box containing Bob and the rest of her things in the middle of his old desk.
Then she remembered: no, not a box. He’s afraid of them.
She carefully took him out and placed him on the desk.
Before she closed the door, she had a brief memory of alive Bob sitting at this very same desk. Regarding her in the same gentle way that he looked at her from the monitor while she came to his door to bark out some order.
The bottle glimmered mildly on the dusty desk.
“I’ll come back tomorrow and get you,” she said, turning away.
The next day, Francis slept until close to noon. Noon! She didn’t think she’d done that in the last twenty years.
Sunlight flitted in white gold patches across the wall. Temporarily, Francis forgot every obligation in her life, and just lay there, watching the sunlight on the walls and the way the rooftops glittered out the window.
Just like every other morning, the first thing she did when she woke up was reach for her phone. A reminder hovered on the screen. Dad’s birthday.
Oh, Francis thought.
It sounded like such a happy thing. And it was, once.
Years and years ago, when Francis was a little girl, she used to look forward to it. Her mother made a big deal out of it, making him a special coffee cake for breakfast. Her father, who worked so hard, used to give in to Francis’s mother, and took that one day off, or a day near it. They’d all do something together, like go to a park. In the evening he would listen to his favorite record and drink a gin and tonic, and play that song about yard sales and time, the one that made Francis so sad. Yet it wasn’t an adult sad but a different version, a shivery, happy kind of sad that had some sort of strange quality of anticipation wrapped up in it. An anticipation of something Francis didn’t yet understand. She would hug herself as she listened to it, while the golden light washed through the living room curtains.
She put the phone down next to her on the bed. The fact of her aloneness in the world came rushing in all at once, like the tide.
After she got up, Francis went down to the coffee shop at the corner and ordered coffee and a piece of coffee cake. The coffee cake was dry and nowhere close to her mother’s, but she supposed it was good enough. And maybe it was better than she thought it was. When she was sad, things lost their flavor.
That night she made a gin and tonic, exactly the way her father used to like it, with a slice of lime and the same brand of gin. It tasted exactly the way it always smelled: bitter and elegant.
Francis thought about playing that song that her father liked. The lyrics were running through her head all day anyway. Especially that one about dust.
No, the coffee cake and the gin and tonic were good enough, Francis decided.
That night she watched a movie she’d seen at least twenty times before, that one about the couple in New York. Back before it flooded, of course. Back when there were all those lovely leaves on the trees in Central Park, and the windows in office buildings had a view of other people, living their lives out below. The whole thing had a surreal sort of feeling, almost like science fiction. But it was comforting. Something about the soundtrack, the blowing leaves …
Right before she fell asleep, she remembered Bob. Alone in that closed office, on his old desk, in the dark. She’d completely forgotten about him.
But it had been a long, sad day, and she couldn’t allow herself to think about something like that.
She thought: when you make a choice to be in a bottle, being alone is a risk you have to know you’re going to take. In fact, it’s the whole point. Obviously. He should be fine with that. Shouldn’t he?
Monday, Francis thought. I’ll see him Monday.
She turned over and fell asleep.
On Sunday, Francis was relieved that Saturday was behind her. She did nothing that day but work at home.
The day seemed like it had barely started before it was over. Which was the kind of day that Francis preferred.
Her office had been fixed over the weekend, the puddle magically gone. Order had been restored, more or less. With great relief, Francis poured herself into the cold clean universe of work. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon on Monday that Francis finally put her laptop in sleep mode and walked down the hall to Bob’s old office.
“Hello?” The greenish gloom of the ocean lurked outside the windows. “Bob?”
Bob’s bottle was right where she had left it, next to the box.
It flickered a weak grayish glow, hardly a glow at all.
“Oh,” Francis said, understanding. “Oh, Bob. I’m so, so sorry.”
I trust you, Francis, was what he had said. She had let him down.
Back in her office, Francis tried to talk to him properly. She plugged in the monitor so she could see him and try to explain. But every time she tried to explain why she wasn’t there, she could tell by his face that she wasn’t explaining it very well at all.
“Francis,” Bob said, “I know you can’t understand this, but I wasn’t happy in there, before—” He trailed off, and stared down at the desk. “Is there anywhere that you hate? Imagine being there when you never wanted to be in the first place, with no choice in the matter—”
Francis swallowed. She hadn’t thought of it that way. She imagined being marooned where she’d scattered her father’s ashes, on that desperate little sandbar that was all that was left of Cape Cod. She’d forgotten that Bob would have any perspective on the matter at all. The truth was, when she put him on his old dusty desk, he was just, well, a bottle.
Maybe her father had been right after all when he said that bottle life wasn’t for him. But was that because he knew that his fate might fall into her hands?
“I’m so sorry,” she said again. “I’ll do anything to make it up to you.” She thought of the waterproof paper sitting in the safe, needily clamoring for a brand name, but immediately dismissed the thought. “Anything at all.”
After she stopped the car, Francis stared through the windshield wipers for a minute or two before she finally turned off the car ignition. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably, and the panic was still there, like something frantic with claws and teeth that had crawled inside her chest and wouldn’t stop flailing around. The parking lot was gray and bleak. She’d just driven farther than she had in years, but it still wasn’t good enough or far enough. The cars on the New Jersey Turnpike went at a terrifying pace. Worse, she’d forgotten the feeling of having to keep her foot on the accelerator, with tons of metal behind her in the form of cars and trucks, and all that crushing water to the east …
She’d let Bob down again.
“You should have told me,” he said mildly, into her ear. His bottle shimmered sympathetically on her dashboard. When she’d bought the dock and the headphones, the guy at the store had also thrown in a free car-mount, which she was using for the first time. “No wonder you never drove anywhere when we went to all those places.”
“No one knows,” Francis said, forlorn.
Bob chuckled. “We’re a pair, aren’t we? I’m afraid of being shipped, and you’re afraid of driving.”
Francis didn’t say anything.
They had been on their way to the town in New Jersey where Bob had grown up. Francis had Googled it; small towns were welcoming donations from future Life in a BottleTM residents, and Bob’s home town was participating in the program. All Francis needed to do was bring him to the town office, and they’d take care of everything.
But Francis knew now: she’d never be able to make it there.
Static, and a hiss in her headphones. Rain pounded wildly on the roof of her car.
Francis wondered how she would ever drive back. That was Worry #1. Worry #2 was what would become of Bob?
She also sensed a new worry, blossoming freshly on the surface of her thoughts.
Worry #3: what would become of her?
“Where are we?” Bob asked.
“The New Jersey Turnpike,” she said dully. Parts of it had been rerouted years ago after the initial floods, but she knew it had been called that since before her father’s time and her time as well. How her father used to love stopping at the rest stops, she remembered. In the summer, they’d all take their sandwiches and walk over to a picnic table in the weeds, and watch the people stagger out of their cars into the summer light. “Look how many kinds of people there are,” he used to say. “It’s as if someone put all the people in the country in a martini shaker, and then poured them out to see which ones appeared.”
“Francis,” Bob said. “Look.”
Francis was staring down at her hands on the steering wheel. What were they even good for? Typing on keyboards and moving a mouse, she concluded. Not much else. Certainly not for driving.
“On the light posts. They’re everywhere.”
“What?” Francis squinted. Really, it was amazing the number of things Bob could see without a pair of eyes. Her own eyes seemed like primitive appendages in comparison, almost on a par with one of those evolutionary leftovers like appendixes or wisdom teeth or those stubby tails people were born with occasionally. “Oh …”
Bottles just like Bob’s were attached to the light poles across the parking lot. Francis wondered how she’d missed seeing them in the first place. They were flickering in every shade imaginable. Below them, people ran with jackets over their heads to get away from the rain.
Out on the highway, cars passed by over and over and over again.
Somehow, even with all the articles Francis had been reading obsessively about Life in a BottleTM program participants, she’d manage to miss reading about the fact that people were coming from all over the country with their Life in a BottleTM loved ones and leaving them at rest stops all up and down the New Jersey Turnpike. A wave of nostalgia had swept the country about their cultural significance, and Life in a BottleTM people, weary of what they saw as the limited charms of sea life, loved the idea of being able to watch people and traffic pass by them all day long. The rest stops, fretting about reduced revenue as the result of more mass transportation and less use of cars, had set up remarkably efficient programs to welcome and accept them.
A reporter even interviewed a couple of them by dragging ladders over to light posts and climbing up with a headset and dock. “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” one stated. Not that anyone really knew what that meant.
All Francis had to do was walk into the office specifically set up for such a purpose (with a sign that read “Life in a BottleTM Future Residents: The Grover Cleveland Rest Stop Welcomes YOU!”) with Bob and place him in a dock. Just like that, the system looked up the amount of money in Bob’s escrow account and got his electronic consent.
The woman behind the counter clacked a few final keys on her keyboard and adjusted her glasses. She was probably around Francis’s age, with wrinkles around her eyes. “You’re all done here, sweetie. He’s good to go.” She held out the headphones to her. “Do you want to say anything? Say goodbye to your friend?”
Francis shook her head. “He can hear me,” Francis said. She tried to think of what to say to him, but she couldn’t think of anything. Nothing seemed quite right. She swallowed and blinked several times, and touched the bottle with her finger. It was cold. It felt like a bottle.
She started to leave, but stopped when she saw the parking lot outside the door. “Wait—where will he be? Which pole, I mean?” Outside the window, all the bottles shivered with color against the gray sky.
The woman consulted her computer screen. “Pole 9C, third from the top. We just had a vacancy. Someone in that bottle decided she wanted to be at Vince Lombardi, down the road.”
“Ah,” Francis said, as if that made perfect sense. She turned to go.
“Oh, sweetie! Wait! I forgot to tell you.” The woman pointed out to the front of the rest stop building. “We have a webcam. Several, actually. You can keep an eye on your friend. Look us up,” she said, winking.
Eventually Francis was promoted to senior vice president, and then executive vice president after that. Her team was in awe of her accomplishments, and accustomed to her moods. But none of them got that close to her. No one, in fact, seemed to know her very well at all.
Therefore, they could only speculate about her strange quirks, like why she never seemed to drive anywhere. Or why she always had a browser window open to the webcam at the Grover Cleveland rest stop.
Or why, years later, after she’d been obviously sick for weeks and weeks, she carefully wrapped up the loose ends of all her projects, made careful recommendations about the careers of everyone on her team, and cleaned out the files on her computer. Then she vanished without a trace.
Just like that, she became a mystery, a legend.
But if Francis’s former coworkers at Quaternary Publishing had only known to look more closely at that webcam, they would have noticed something: a new bottle had been added to pole 9C. Second from the top, and splendid under the golden light from the sun. It shimmered, fierce and remote, above all the different people who came and went. They were all on their way to somewhere else, and they were looking forward to getting there at last.
Emily Zasada has previously had work published in Flock (formerly Fiction Fix) and Penny. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son.