I realize my dreams have been hacked when my wife and I get back to our apartment, around lunchtime, with two Dancin’ Doug Robots, and dump them both in our guest room, which has lately become a repository for the random stuff that we buy when we wake up. We both go into the kitchen, where she sets the table. I dump protein shake mix into the food processor, and hit the “Random” button on the food box. It dispenses two turkey sandwiches. Again. With a dill spear each. Again.
“Is that thing broken?” she asks.
I shrug, and look inside the food box. All we’ve really got is turkey cold cuts and bread. A half empty jar of pickles.
“Well?” she says.
“It’s all we’ve got,” I say. “Turkey and bread. It’s not broken, we just need to go grocery shopping.”
She grunts, and moves to the food processor to pour our protein shakes into glasses.
“Jennie,” I start.
She looks over at me.
“Why did we buy those robots this morning?”
Dancin’ Doug Robots are what most people would file under the category: Useless Crap. They are about two feet tall, composite plastics, some fiberglass, with metal joints. They have a very primitive form of robotic programming—just enough to respond to a limited number of voice commands. All of these commands are related to forms of dance that Dancin’ Doug has been programmed to know. A Dancin’ Doug Robot is priced to sell at $4,000.
“Because they’re fun, Don,” Jennie replies. As if it’s obvious. Of course we’d buy them.
“Right, but they are sitting, still-packaged, in our spare room while we eat turkey sandwiches for the eighth time this week. We spent $8,000 on toys, instead of buying food. That would’ve bought us three weeks of groceries—the good stuff, too, not the synth kind.”
“I don’t mind the synth stuff,” she says.
“That’s not the point,” I say.
“Then what is the point?”
I shrug. We are late on our rent, we’re not buying groceries. I’m working over-time at the Yin Cheng call center over in Seattle (a 90 minute commute by hover-rail in each direction), trying to use my best stunted Mandarin to explain to angry people in China why: their computer is broken, their car is no longer under warranty, their robot gardener is watching them in their sleep. I hate this job. I also hate my other job, here in Spokane, cleaning out video-phone booths. I am not working 60 hours a week at shitty jobs so we can eat turkey sandwiches and accumulate crap that we don’t even want.
“What’s the point, Don?”
“We don’t even want Dancin’ Doug Robots,” I say. “Or the AbMaster8000s that we bought two days ago, or the self-heating pillows we bought the week before. Do you even remember buying those pillows?”
She shrugs. “I wanted that stuff. It’s epic,” she says.
We’re 30 years old. We’re supposed to be past caring about what the latest epic thing is. Something new is epic every week. Five years ago, sure, okay, I cared a little about what was epic. Ten years ago, absolutely. Everything that was epic: I wanted it. Now, I’m more concerned with groceries, and bills, and over-time, and vacation time, and whether Jennie’s parents are going to ask me how night school is going. I don’t want to tell them that it isn’t going anymore, because they already think I’m a deadbeat.
That’s when I tell her our dreams are getting hacked. “You didn’t really want that stuff,” I say. “Neither of us did. But we always both seem to end up buying the same amount of the same thing.”
“Come on, baby, you saw the stuff about that website on the news vids—there was an independent study,” she says. “It was just some wacky conspiracy theory.”
A few weeks ago, I found this website. It had already been debunked by an independent investigation sponsored by the Federal government. But I read it anyway. It talked about how couples that shared dreams were getting their dreams hacked by spam companies. It talked about how those companies would insert products into dreams, and a sense of over-whelming emotional desire. Those couples would then wake up with an irresistible urge to buy the spam company’s product. My wife and I had been buying outrageous shit for two years, always after we woke up.
“Honey, sweety,” I say. “Look in the food box. Then, go back into the spare room and look—I mean really look—at all the stuff we have. All of it still packaged.”
To my surprise, she does. She looks in the food box, closes it, and walks past me into the living room, presumably on her way to the spare room.
I trail behind her, splitting off and into our bedroom while Jennie looks at all our junk in the spare room. At the head of our bed is the shared-dreaming terminal. A small computer and all sorts of electrodes. I’m used to this old thing, a wedding gift from her parents. We hook in and dream the same dreams together. It’s very intimate. That’s what her parents said when we opened it, and what she said to me later, on our honeymoon, when she was convincing me to try it. I don’t really remember many of my dreams. But I still attach the electrodes before I go to sleep anyway. For Jennie.
I feel Jennie behind me before she puts her arms around my waist, and rests her head on my back. “You’re right,” she says. “It’s a lot of stuff. Maybe we should cut down, save some money for awhile.”
She does this a lot. Tells me I’m right, when really she means I’m wrong.
“So,” I say. “You don’t think our dreams are being hacked?”
She says “no” so quietly that I barely hear her. I ask her if she remembers last night, how we were dreaming about Jamaica, our honeymoon, when suddenly there was Dancin’ Doug on the beach. She shakes her head—I can feel it against my back.
“Well, that’s how it happened.” I’m not sure that’s how it happened. I don’t remember last night’s dream, per se. But that’s probably about how it went down, so it seems like an okay kind of lie.
She pulls away from me instead of responding. When I turn around, she’s gone. I follow her into the kitchen, where she sits, eats her turkey sandwich, drinks her protein shake. I sit across from her at the table.
“$143,000 in two years,” I say. “That’s how much money we’ve spent on stuff that’s currently sitting in our spare room. I did the math, the other day.”
“We’ll cut back,” she says.
“We’re getting programmed in our dreams. We can’t disconnect the shared-dream computer from the internet because it doesn’t function without regular software updates. So we just have to stop shared-dreaming.” I know this will not go over well, but not how bad it will be.
“Can’t you just drop it?”
“We have to pull the plug,” I say.
“You don’t love me, do you?” she says.
So, that’s how bad it will be, I think, searching for words, and finding none.
I say something hollow sounding about how of course I love her, and I get my own turkey sandwich, sit down beside her. She gets up, leaves her sandwich half-eaten, and goes into the spare room. I hear the door close, the lock engage. The turkey tastes stale when I bite into it. I’m not even really hungry. But still, I take another bite, and another.
I used to love her. When we were sitting on the beach in Jamaica, just married, drinking tropical drinks, I loved her more than anything in the world. At night when we’d have sex and then sit in bed and watch Holo-Vids until four a.m., the ocean’s crash faint in the background, the sweet smell of it wafting in through the open porch door, I loved her madly. There was nothing I loved more than the thin curve of her body, her dark brown hair, bordering on black, the tentative way she smiled, like whatever it was that made her happy might suddenly become unreal if she acknowledged it.
I tried to love her for a long time after that, and succeeded for a while. I ignored pretty waitresses, even when she wasn’t around. I tried to fantasize about her when we were apart—when she was visiting her parents, or I was visiting old friends in Vancouver. I did the shared-dreaming thing with her whenever we were both home. I signed up for online classes at night and promised her I’d make something more of myself, move us into a nicer place.
But eventually I realized that what I’d fallen in love with was her physical presence, or maybe to be more accurate, the idea of her. I fell in love with the fantastic beauty of her smile—maybe because it was so cliché to be captivated by a smile, but also so true. I fell in love with her hair, which I really did love to run my hand through. I fell in love with the way she carried herself, something I always called quiet strength. All of this stuff that I fell in love with: cliché. Ultimately, this was the problem. I fell in love with a normal idea of what love should be, not with her. She wasn’t a bad person. In fact she was a good person. She was nice, sometimes funny. But there was a certain something missing, and it took me a long time to realize and accept that. I stopped not flirting with attractive waitresses. I let my eyes linger on pretty girls walking by on the street. I still shared my dreams with Jennie, never told her how I felt. It’d be a lie to say I never contemplated divorce, but it’s the truth that I never really considered actually doing it. I still wanted—still want—to be married to her. I guess that’s a form of love, of devotion. It’s something, anyway.
This is why it all came out like it did when I brought up the shared dreaming.
She’s never locked herself in a room like this before, but somehow I know what will happen if I knock on the door, call her “honey,” ask her to come out and talk to me. She’ll ignore me, or get even more upset. So what I do is I leave a note. It says I love her and I went to lunch and I’ll be back soon. And then I get my sweatshirt and go to my favorite café.
A five minute drive later, and Alice is bringing water to my table, smiling at me, asking me if I’ll have the regular. Honestly, the food at this place is only decent. A hundred bucks for decent food, including tip. It’s pretty reasonable, but not super cheap, or super good. The real reason I come here, I suppose, is for Alice. It’s harmless, really. Harmless flirting—she’s probably just trying to get a good tip. Still, it’s nice. Especially at times like this.
I smile extra wide today, when I say yes, please, the regular, and hand her my menu. Her fingers brush against mine as she takes it—this is new, and it raises my heart rate a little. After she puts my order in, she comes back and sits down across from me. She does this sometimes, when it’s a slow day. Today is a slow day. Usually we just talk about nothing—sports, or weather, or if something funny happens in the government, like a senator gets elbowed playing basketball or something.
Today she just looks at me, smiling.
“What do you think of shared-dreaming?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “I had a boyfriend who wanted to try it. I thought it was weird. I’m used to telling someone about a strange dream that I had, you know? But not talking about a strange dream that we both had. It was too weird.”
“Did you break up with him?”
She nods. “But not because of that. He cheated on me.”
I tell her I’m sorry and she shrugs, says it’s water under the bridge. “Water under the bridge,” she says, smiling, and asks me why I ask.
I tell her it’s nothing, just a little fight with my wife over whether to keep shared dreaming or not. I tell her how I think our dreams are being hacked, and how she won’t believe me.
“I heard about that,” she says. “My brother says you can just reset the connection on your shared dream computer. Takes about five minutes, and the spam company can’t get through. Like changing your password on MyTweetFace or on your email.”
Reset the connection. I nod and thank her for the tip. She smiles and gets up: Back to work. I google “My dreams have been hacked” with my hand computer, and scroll through results. Aside from one or two results from the government study, it seems that everyone on the internet is operating under the assumption that the dream hacking is real, that the government study was either paid off or incompetent. I find a likely looking result and click it. I start reading, when the screen is obstructed by a large picture of Jennie, and a notification that she’s calling me. In this picture she’s smiling that tentative smile, that I don’t see much of these days. I hit the “Ignore” button and go back to reading.
I put the hand-comp down when Alice brings my food, while it finishes loading the latest result. I take my first bites while I read. It seems that Alice’s brother is correct. There’s a fairly complex explanation of how it works, but basically all I have to do is hold a button for five seconds, and wait five minutes for the shared-dream computer to reset itself. And this will solve all of my problems. Our dreams won’t be hacked, I can go back to sharing them with Jennie. Everybody wins.
I eat, and when Alice brings my check our fingers touch again as she takes my credit card. The nerves in that part of my finger seem to retain some kind of sensation for at least fifteen seconds after she has walked away.
When she brings the card back she offers it to me instead of just setting it down on the table, and this time when I grab it out of her hands I run my fingers down the soft protrusion of finger bones on the back of her hand. Looking at her smile, I know I need to sign this receipt and immediately go home to my wife, if I want to go home.
“You know,” she says while I sign, “I get off in an hour.”
Some distant part of me has a semi-conscious reaction to this whole moment when it realizes that this is an important fork in the road that is my life. The thing I say to this woman next will determine which direction I take on that road. I will tell her I’ll wait around, and then go home with her, with Alice, who I often fantasize about while having sex with Jennie, and I’ll cheat on my wife for the first time. Or I’ll tell her something apologetic and make a hasty exit back to Jennie. I seem to be in slow motion while I sign my name, Alice looming in my peripheral vision.
“Well,” I say, “I’m going to go see what Jennie is up to. Have fun with whatever you do when you get off.” I’m careful to give her twice the normal tip.
She’s good about this. I imagine that she very rarely comes on to married men like this. Maybe I’m her first. I don’t know why she picked me. Could be she’s having a shitty day, too, and sensed in me a kindred spirit. It doesn’t matter, because I can’t. And to her credit, she’s good about my answer. She forces a smile and nods, takes the receipt back, and says to have a good day.
When I get back Jennie is sitting at the table, reading a book. She looks up as soon as I close the door behind me. She says she’s sorry she got so mad, knows I was just concerned about money. I smile at her and say it’s okay and walk over and rub her shoulder for a second. Then I go into our bedroom to look at the shared dreaming computer. I turn it over and find the button on the back of the computer, the reset button. It’s very small, blends in with the case. All I have to do is press it for five seconds and all of my problems go away. The DreamCorp slogan is imprinted just beneath the button: “The couple that dreams together, stays together.”
Behind me, I feel Jennie’s presence before she speaks. “What’re you doing?” she asks.
I don’t know why I don’t press the button. But I don’t. I don’t press the button, and then I put the computer back on the ledge behind our bed, how it’s always been since we moved in here. “Nothing,” I say to Jennie. “Just looking at it.”
“I don’t want to give it up because of some crazy conspiracy theory,” she says.
“Say something,” she says.
I don’t have anything to say, so I shrug and walk past her, into the spare room. The first thing I do is open up all of our self-heating pillows. I bring them into our bedroom and place them on top of our regular pillows. Jennie just watches me. I don’t know what I’m doing or why, but the next thing I do is open up both of our Dancin’ Doug Robots and my AbMaster 8000. I set up the AbMaster 8000, and start using it—doing these weird sort of supported crunches, the AbMaster 8000 whirring along beside me, vibrating my muscles. After I get the hang of it I look over at the Dancin’ Doug twins and say, “the robot.” Nothing happens, so I say it a little louder. One of the Dancin’ Dougs starts doing the robot, arms gyrating stiltedly, torso twisting occasionally. It plays a poor quality, tinny kind of electronic dance music that doesn’t quite seem to go along with the dance. I say it even louder, until I am shouting, but the other one simply sits there, defective.
Jennie says something to me, but I ignore it, don’t even hear it really, just keep doing crunches until my stomach burns. Then, still doing crunches, I say loudly, “salsa.” The one robot starts doing something that could be vaguely construed as a salsa dance, playing some salsa music. The robot kind of shimmies a little bit, and bumps into the defective one, knocking it over. Once that one’s knocked over, it starts doing the robot. On its side, the dance is even more bizarre, and the robot is really just wriggling, and here I think to myself that this one, the defective one wriggling on the ground, out of tune and one step behind, must be mine. Jennie is saying something else, and maybe starting to cry, and the tinny salsa music is mixing with the sort of electronic robot dance music, and my abs are really burning now. “Electric Shuffle,” I say. “Square dance,” I say. “Tap dance,” I say. Ballet, Moon Shuffle, Mexican Hat Dance (it doesn’t know this one), pole dance (it doesn’t know this one either), Samba, Flamenco.
Just as I am running out of dances, something seems to snap inside of Jennie, and she rushes over to the two Dougs, and starts kicking them. She kicks over the good one first, then stomps on both of them until they are both silent, both still. She looks at me, eyes red and wet, and asks me what the hell is wrong with me. Tells me if I want to say something to her, I should just say it. “If you want to say something, just say it,” she says.
But I don’t want to say anything. I don’t know what I want to do, but I know what I should do. I know what the husband is supposed to do when the wife is crying, and I fall back on this. What I do is get up. My abs are killing me. She lets me walk over to her, and reach for her, and envelope her with my arms, and hold her for a long time. She gradually stops crying, and we eventually leave the spare room, return to the living room. I apologize, she apologizes. We kiss some, and watch Holo-Vids for the rest of the evening. We take a break for dinner, but it’s still turkey sandwiches with pickles. We make a promise to each other to grocery shop together tomorrow, when I get off work. We watch Holo-Vids some more, until we both decide we want to go to bed early.
We have make-up sex, and it’s very good. I don’t fantasize that I’m with Alice, not even once. When it’s done, she looks at me, and her lower lip begins to tremble, and I remember why I loved her, even if I don’t anymore. I don’t say anything about it, but I begin attaching the electrodes from the shared dreaming computer to my head—temples, forehead, back of the neck. She smiles, attaches her own, and kisses me. I turn out the lights and lay there for a while, until her regular breathing subsides to sleep-breathing, deep and slow.
It occurs to me, with how fast she falls asleep and the peaceful look on her face, that for her everything is back to normal. And I detach the electrodes from my head, one at a time. We have shared dreams every night since I visited friends in Vancouver without her four years ago.
It is when I begin removing the electrodes that I think of Alice again, touching her fingers to mine.
When the last one is removed, I close my eyes and prepare for sleep. Perhaps Jennie will wake up before me in the morning, see what I have done, and leave me. Perhaps even now she is aware, dimly, of my withdrawal from her dreams, aware of some absence in her dream world that she hasn’t felt for a long time. With each removed electrode, I feel more disconnected. More like whatever happens tomorrow will not happen to me, but to somebody else. For now I am just tired. I relish the feeling as my body settles back, and each muscle relaxes, and at last I feel some kind of relief from the day. I have not felt this good for a long time, and I give myself to the encroaching darkness of sleep. I give myself to dreams—to my own, for the first time in a long time.
Greg Leunig has a BA from UC Denver, and an MFA from Eastern Washington U., both in creative writing. His poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, and his fiction is forthcoming at 10Flash and The Colored Lens. He’s lived in every continental U.S. timezone, his principal claim to fame, and really really likes cookies. To learn what kind of toothbrush he uses, follow him (@GregIsDangerous) on Twitter.