Stepping Out of Stream

by Marie Vibbert

I leave home without my simulator, not because I don’t like them or because it is broken; I misplaced it.  News programs and neighbors tell us to keep our simulator handy, even if it isn’t playing, for the security features, but Sharon expects me at noon and I am never late.  I am only going a short distance, across town to the museum.  That is not to say I am not afraid.

Alone and exposed to the world, I walk to the subway.

The posters on the walls, those that are left between the blank grey video screens, are tattered.  They advertise movies from my childhood and products long forgotten.  I used to try to sift through the images and guess the exact date of the last print advertisement posted in New York.  Now I just dislike the ugliness and regret my decision to go without a prettier reality.

I change trains at Fifth Avenue.  As I ride the escalator up to the higher level, a wall of sound hits me, distinct and sharp after the white noise of the subway.

A thin, rangy kid bends over a flute, filling the tiled expanse of the station with trills and pants that roll along the ceramic walls.

I stop; commuters bump me left and right like a pebble in a stream.  (On purpose.  The software is very good these days, making fellow commuters, trash and walls into a part of the environment so you won’t hit them.  I love being part of a herd of zebras on the African plain, or a brightly colored fish in an elaborate coral reef.  These people know that the fish in front of them must be another commuter, and choose to punish me for slowing them down.  I forgive them, having bumped my share of animated fish.)

The kid keeps playing, pushing his body into his instrument like a starving man ravages a sandwich.  His eyes aren’t blocked by simulator shades; they are squeezed tight, pale wrinkles against his dusky cheeks.

A businessman without a simulator catches my glance, a little flick of his lashes and eye roll indicating our solidarity: we’re both stuck here, hearing this, isn’t it awful?

But it isn’t awful.  I bump out of the stream of walkers and stand in front of the young man.  He bends his head very low as a particularly high, rapid trill comes out, a spiraling sound that makes me think of birds dive-bombing insects.  The sound fills the space, fills my chest.  It should rip tiles from the walls like a wire torn free.

Beauty slides effortlessly off ear-buds and simulator-shades like water around salmon.  The businessman without shades has gone on to the northbound platform.  I and the flautist are alone.

His music is raw, unpolished, and he loses the beat now and again, but it’s better for that; it reminds me that the music is being made this instant.

He tosses his dreads back, takes a long gasping breath, and sees me.  His eyes widen in panic and he steps back, flute now held across his chest like a defense.  “What do you want?”

I shake my head.  “Just… you play nice.”

“Thanks?”  He’s still defensive, against the wall.

I can’t help but smile.  He’s at least four inches taller than me, muscles pretty and powerful under his loose shirt.  And I… well, I have to lean on my cane while talking to him or my hips will start to ache.  Why are we always so afraid of each other?  Afraid we’ll be asked for something – money, kindness.  We’re safer in our shades, trusting their outward cameras to deter theft and their blindness to deter conversation.

I realize I’m just standing there smiling at the confused boy.  I ask him, “Why here?”

“Acoustics.”  He nudges his head toward the vaulted ceiling.  “And usually… no one bothers me.”

I like the acoustics too.  The shuffling feet and incidental noises of a hundred office workers skate over the walls like a waterfall.  I don’t say this.  “Are you practicing, then?”

“Mom won’t let me do it at home.  Look, lady, it’s a public space, all right?”  He gains a little courage, straightens away from the wall.  Finally realizes he has as much right to be there as I do.

“Good playing,” I say, and reach into my pocket.  He flinches.  I don’t know what he expects.  I’m glad I never clean out my coat pockets.  The coin hits the ground with a satisfying ring.

He stares at the dollar I throw at his feet.  People don’t do that anymore.  Of course, people don’t play on street corners anymore, either.

Or, actually, they do.  We do.  I hope I catch a glimmer of understanding in his eyes as we part ways.

I’m smiling as I climb the stairs to street-level, leaving the warmth and human smell of the subway.  I feel that I am coming in from the outdoors, and that I haven’t done that for a long time.

Notes …

Marie Vibbert has been published in Analog, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Apex, among other markets. She has ridden 17% of the roller coasters in North America. She attended Clarion in 2013 and played defensive end for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team. By day, she is a mild-mannered web developer and IT professional.

Marie Vibbert writes … “This story reflects my love of public transportation—especially trains!—and the way beauty is often right in front of us, but we fail to see it. I wrote the first draft of this story in 2007. The technology it presents is no longer quite so far-fetched as advances are being made rapidly in augmented reality simulations.”

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