Gary listened to the orchestra of the checkout line- the steady beep of the scanner, the insect chatter of unfurling bags, the percussion of wine bottles thudding down on the conveyor belt- and he had a decision to make. It wasn’t quite the life-or-death choice he had faced a few minutes prior- ordinary or gluten-free barbecue sauce- but it was still a difficult one. As he shuffled forward in the line, which stretched ten or fifteen people deep, he thumbed at the smartphone in his pocket and after a few exploratory prods he decided to go with the alternative. The line seemed to stretch on forever, a knotted cord of frustrated murmurs. Past the old lady in front of him who counted out change like a leprechaun sorting through his crock of gold, Gary noticed a man standing with a single reusable bag staring straight ahead. The man shuffled forward with the same zombie-motion as everyone else but, unlike the rest of the purgatoried denizens of the line, he wasn’t fiddling with a phone or making idle conversation with himself or anyone else, he was staring straight ahead, completely lost in the dull process of waiting. Gary noticed the little raised bump of flesh behind the man’s right ear, which emitted a soft blip of light every 30 seconds or so. Gary raised his index finger up behind his ear and tapped at the little nodule there. Then there was darkness and quiet.
“Cash or card?”
It was always like waking up from a dream. Gary’s mind would flail around for a moment, the time he had been away seemed both endless and instantaneous, and it always took him a moment to drink in the world and let it become warm and familiar to him. Gary said nothing but counted out the cash and swiftly bagged his groceries. As he strolled out of the shop he cast a little glance back at the girl working the till. Her eyes had a glazed-over look and her voice (“Hello” “Cash or card” “Have a nice day”) always held the same level, clipped tone each time she glanced at a new customer. Gary wasn’t sure, but he would have bet that there was a little blinking light just behind her ear. Her name tag read “Hi! I’m Sophie, how can I help you?” but Gary knew that ‘Sophie’ wasn’t sitting there. Sophie was somewhere else.
Gary’s left hand hovered over the screen of his phone, guarding it from the rain. He tapped at the little rectangle of light and colour and eventually he was successful in hailing himself a taxi. He would be waiting in the rain for three or so minutes, feeling it gurgle down drains and sluice around the stones of the street, and for a moment he debated outsourcing the job to Phil, but decided against it. Instead he shot Lisa a quick text message.