Stanley still couldn’t believe it.

He’d been quietly pinching himself for the past three and a half hours, but she still hadn’t vanished.

“You know, I’ve had a really great time tonight,” Molly said, sharing that tiny smile Stan had come to cherish over the evening.

“Y-yeah, yeah, me too,” Stan stuttered.

Molly squeezed his hand affectionately and then stepped up to her front door, taking her keys from her purse as she did so. Before she slotted the key into the lock she turned back to face Stanley. He couldn’t help but feel himself go red beneath her gaze. Once again he felt like a little boy.

Her cherry-red hair gleamed beneath the artificial lamp, and the acorn-shaped hairclip glittered. Her blue eyes had a playful gleam in them, and when she studied Stan it made him feel as if his every move amused her. But it was the smile more than anything that enraptured Stan. The way it curled up at the left-hand side in a deprecating manner sent shivers down the back of his knees.

It was that small, almost impish smile that had made Stanley Hatfield fall in love. He just wished the evening didn’t have the end.

He wanted to say something, anything that would draw out this brief moment and delay the inevitable point when she would turn her back and escape inside. Just as he went to do so, however, her lagoon-deep eyes flicked upwards and began sparkling with delight. A gleeful gasp broke from her lips and her hand snatched at Stan’s own.

He himself gasped as he felt her velvet touch send shockwaves of euphoria through his body. He followed her gaze up, jealous of whatever could have transfixed her attention so suddenly.

Knife-edge thin streaks of light slashed across the sky above their heads.

“Shooting stars,” Molly sighed. “Aren’t they amazing?”

Stanley said nothing. Perhaps, once, shooting stars had held some sort of power over the young man. But whatever sensation that may have been, it was useless against the torrent of feelings he felt towards the wonder currently clutching hold of his hand.

The pair stood like that for several seconds. She stared up at the starlit sky, and he gazed at her.

Finally, after what felt like no time at all for Stan, she looked down and shot him the smile he so adored.

“Well,” she said, squeezing his hand again before letting go. “I guess this is good night.”

“I . . . I guess,” Stanley mumbled. Another smile sent a flare of courage roaring into Stan’s usually timid heart. He cleared his throat and took a step forward, joining Molly on the porch step. “Can – can I see you again?” he asked, dreading her answer.

That enrapturing smile lengthened a portion. “Sure,” she said. “You have my number, call me.”

“I have . . .?” he glanced down at his hand and there it was. Her mobile number inked along his palm in an almost unreadable scrawl.

Molly flashed him a wink. “Call me,” she said. And then, before Stan  could stop her, she stepped through the door and vanished.

Stanley closed his eyes, heaved a large, mournful sigh, and then opened them again. He had to blink several times to get the sleep out of his eyes.

“Hello, Mr Hatfield,” a doughy-faced young girl said, flashing Stan a hollow, worn-out smile, “Welcome back to reality.”

*

“Re-Mind: the number one destination for those wanting to escape the banalities of reality.” This was the slogan that greeted Stanley as he, his head still fuzzy, stepped out of his private booth and into the softly-lit corridor.

The woman on the wall broke out of her automatic routine and turned to face Stanley, her face trailing wayward pixels along the way. “Hello, Mr Hatfield,” she chirped with a clipped, American drawl. “How was your simulation?”

Stanley shrugged, uninterested in addressing the computer programme. “Fine,” he mumbled.

Artificial delight washed over the young woman’s dimpled features. “I’m so happy to hear that,” she trilled. “Be sure to tell all your friends about Re-Mind, we’re the number one provider of people’s dreams!”

The young, unfortunately balding, and round-gutted man pulled on his torn parka and trudged out of the spotless establishment, avoiding the gaze of the welcome programmes slapped onto every wall.

He must have only been in there for twenty minutes, yet as he stepped outside and felt the biting chill of the afternoon he couldn’t help but feel several years older. He’d spent most of his wage packet on that simulation, yet it hadn’t filled the gaping chasm he felt every day.  If anything all he’d done was wrench the hole open even further.

The soulless, slate-grey sky bore down on the hapless man as he stalked his way down the streets. He tried to drag the time along, try and put the moment off, but before too long he’d made his way back to his flat.

With a press of his thumb the door swiped open and all but one of the lights flickered on. He still hadn’t fixed that bulb. He wouldn’t be able to afford to do so now. Before he’d even thrown off his coat, the wall opposite him flashed to life and a small, floating orb flew into focus.

“Morning, Stew!” the programme sang, its voice cracking slightly.

“My name’s Stanley.”

“Error,” the orb buzzed. “System out of date. Please upgrade.”

“Can’t afford it.”

Stanley turned away from the wall and sloped into the living room where four more of the orbs swam onto their respective screens.

“You have one new message,” the personal programme declared. “Playing message.”

“No, don’t -”

“Hi Stanley, it’s Gareth.” This was a new voice. One that sent a shiver of embarrassment down Stanley’s back. “Yeah, remember me? You were supposed to be covering a shift today. This is the fourth time you’ve done this to us now, Stan. Don’t bother about tomorrow’s shift; we’ll get it covered by someone more reliable. Okay, bye.”

“Your calendar has been updated.”

It wasn’t fair, Stanley thought, sinking down into his chair. She had been the perfect woman, the woman he’d always dreamed of. Sure, that’s all it was at the end of the day, but she had still been there. He could remember how she had felt, how she had smelled, and that smile . . .

He looked down at his palm, dying to see her number still scrawled there. But all that stared up at him was his pale, pudgy skin. He knew he’d have to see her again. He hadn’t cherished the time enough. He’d fooled himself into thinking it was all real and hadn’t been able to make the most of it all.

He’d have to do better next time. It was just fortunate that he now had some free time on his hands.

“Rammy,” Stanley said, “update my calendar for tomorrow.”

*

“You know, I’ve had a really great time tonight,” Molly said, sharing that tiny smile Stan had come to cherish over the evening.

He had to make it last. He couldn’t leave, not yet. He couldn’t go back to reality, not when he wasn’t ready.

Molly squeezed his hand affectionately. She went to step up to the front door, but Stanley didn’t let go.  She paused momentarily. Her legs tried to continue up towards the door, but her upper torso remained fixed in place. It was as if the simulation wasn’t sure what to do with itself.

“Please,” Stanley implored, his hand clenching around Molly’s. He could feel the smooth skin beneath his touch. He could smell the cedar-wood soap she used. He could hear the sound of his heart thumping in his ears. “Let’s go for a walk. It’s not that late after all!”

“Well, I guess this is good night.” But her face was fighting the words. The scripted simulation was trying to impose itself on the natural flow of Stanley’s dreams.

He tried pulling her gently away from the door, he had to try and keep her from escaping. Surely there would be something he could do to make it last just that few minutes longer.

But there was nothing in his hand.

The programme had simply rewritten Molly back to where they wanted her. And that was with her slotting her key into the door.

Molly flashed him a wink. “Call me,” she said. And then, before Stanley could fight it, she was gone and the dream was over.

*

Stanley found himself in a plush, gleaming white office that was nearly twice the size of his entire flat. He hadn’t been allowed to simply stalk out of his private booth and onto the streets like usual. This time, before he’d made it halfway down the corridor, he’d been accosted by one of the welcome programmes and ushered into a room he hadn’t even realised had been there.

One wall was dominated by a plethora of screens, each one showing a different room of the building. Stanley could see that all but one of the private booths was occupied, and the empty one had been his own. The other three walls were spotless. Simply a whitewash that gleamed with an inner light. Sat in the centre Stanley began to feel like an ant caught beneath a magnifying glass, and the woman staring at him only added to discomfort he was beginning to feel.

“Mr Hatfield,” Dr Faber drawled, leaning back in her skeletal-thin chair, “we at Re-Mind pride ourselves on offering our clients the opportunity to escape the mundane regularity of real life. A respite from reality that we all, on occasion, need. Businessmen who don’t have the time for a holiday can, in just one twenty minute session here, spend two weeks in the Mediterranean. A young couple, unsure of what the future may hold, can experience all aspects of child-rearing in our establishment before deciding whether they want to take that plunge for real.” Her cold, drill-bit eyes studied Stanley for a long time. She leaned forward, her finely polished nails drumming on the glass table-top. “The goal of Re-Mind, Mr Hatfield, is to offer our clients a brief escape. Reality is not something from which you should permanently run.”

“I . . . I don’t understand,” Stanley mumbled, glancing away from Dr Faber’s piercing glare.

“You’ve visited our establishment every day for the past week, Mr Hatfield,” the woman said sternly. “That is not healthy, and it is not something that we at Re-Mind condone.”

“But – but I can pay -”

“That is not the issue, Mr Hatfield,” Dr Faber insisted. She looked to Stanley like the sort of woman who had very little patience, and he could tell it was close to running out. “To remain in the dream-world can have disastrous effects on your mental well-being, and that is not a cross we at Re-Mind wish to bear.”

“What are you saying?”

“I am saying that you are no longer welcome at any Re-Mind facility,” the doctor declared, closing her hands together. “You will have to learn to live with reality like the rest of us.”

The world around Stanley began to crumble. It was too much to bear. “I – I won’t be allowed back?”

Dr Faber nodded curtly.

“But – but I didn’t . . . I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye!”

The woman’s eye twitched impatiently. “Technically you have said goodbye eight times, Mr Hatfield.”

Stanley’s head sank down until his chin bounced off his chest. He could hear the sound of the door behind him sliding open. Obviously this was supposed to be his cue. But he couldn’t go. He couldn’t go back to that flat, not again.

“Can – can I not just have one more?” he asked quietly. “I – I can pay.”

Dr Faber studied the hunched figure of a man. A small ember of pity flushed into her heart. She drummed a tattoo on the table and then sighed. “Very well,” she said finally. “We will grant you one last session.” She tapped a portion of the table and glanced down at a row of boxes that appeared beneath her palm. “We have an available slot next Tuesday at ten o’clock, Mr Hatfield.”

“That sounds perfect,” Stanley said, smiling thinly. That would be more than enough time.

*

A week later Stanley arrived at the Re-Mind facility as soon as it struck ten o’clock. He limped through the entrance foyer and was ushered into his personal booth. When the door clicked shut behind him, the ambience orbs flickered into life and started his pre-ordered relaxation suite. The lights dimmed down and the room began to fill with an easing aroma of freshly mown grass and liquorice.

Once the bed had slid out from the wall Stanley picked up the cables and, ignoring the directions being dictated from the speakers above the pillow, attached them with expert swiftness on his temples and his forehead. He stretched himself out on the bed and stared at the ceiling, waiting for the voice to finish.

“We hope that you enjoy your simulation,” the voice finally said. “Sweet dreams.”

Just as the drowsiness began to overwhelm Stanley, he mustered the strength to follow his instructions. His eyelids fluttering, and a yawn bursting from his mouth, he prodded the space just above his knee where a fresh scar lay. Now he’d just have to hope it worked.

*

The evening had gone exactly as it had every time before. The same flowers, the same restaurant, the same conversation, but this time . . . this time the ending would be different.

“You know, I’ve had a really great time tonight,” Molly said. Stanley couldn’t help but feel weak as she turned that smile towards him.

He thought now what he’d thought every time he saw it. I can’t live without that smile. If this had to be the last time he saw Molly, then he was sure as Hell going to make it last.

“Me too,” Stan said, confidence fluttering in his usually timid heart. “Who says it has to end here?”

Molly stared at him, her features flickering uncertainly. The young man bit his lower lip and felt his fingers cross themselves instinctively.

“All you gotta do is press it when you go under, got it?”

It had taken Stanley most of the week to find the site, but he knew it existed. Everyone knew those sorts of sites existed. A site where, whatever it was you wanted, they could get it. He had to give up his life-savings to afford it, but that hadn’t bothered Stanley.

The man had met him in a local bar, all but deserted at that time in the afternoon. Without meeting Stanley’s gaze he had slid the envelope across the table. “Thing about the guys at Re-Mind is that they use a computer programme to engineer your own subconscious,” the man had explained, sniffing loudly now and again as his eyes darted erratically around the room. “No matter what you want to happen, if it goes against the programme, it ain’t gonna happen.” He wiped his nose on the back of his hand and then tapped on the envelope Stanley held protectively. “That’ll intercept their signal from the computer and put you back in charge of the dream.”

“They won’t be able to end it?” Stanley asked nervously.

The man shook his head. “Only you can end it.” He scratched his cheek and shrugged awkwardly. “‘Course, they ain’t gonna let you just walk in there with it in your pocket. So, question is, you all right with a bit of surgery?”

He had been willing to do anything to make this moment last. Now he’d find out if it had been worth it all.

Molly’s face twitched violently as Stanley’s dreams fought against the Re-Mind programme. Finally, after what felt like a century of waiting for the young man, Molly’s smile widened.

“You’re right,” she said, taking the keys from her purse.

Stanley beamed as he watched her take the key and slot it into the lock. She pushed the door open and turned an inviting smile towards him. He couldn’t make out what lay beyond the doorway. Everything was a blur besides the woman before him. But he was sure the interior would be everything he had imagined. She took his hand, just as he had always wanted her to.

“Well?” she asked. “You coming in?”

Finally Stanley had everything he’d been looking for.

Following obediently, Stanley stepped into the flat.

*

“It’s no good; we’re not getting any response.”

Dr Faber stared down at the inert man. The cables had been snatched away, yet he was still out cold. His face was waxen and cold, but a small, satisfied smile was glued to his lips. The medical attendant straightened up and shook his head mournfully. He pointed to the crudely stitched wound on Stanley’s right thigh. “It’s one of those damned jamming devices,” he murmured.

“Will he wake?” Dr Faber asked curtly.

“Difficult to say,” the assistant stated. “That’s really up to him. He’s in control of the dream world now. Until he decides it’s time to wake up, he’ll remain in this catatonic state.”

The woman continued to stare down at Stanley Hatfield. At one time she may have felt sympathy for his fate. But now, after so long, all she felt was anger. Anger at seeing a life wasted chasing after the half-baked dreams she and her company peddled.

“What should we do with him?” the assistant asked.

She tutted irritably and turned away. “Usual procedure,” she stated.”Send him down with the others.”

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