Updated: Sep 28, 2020
The wooden casing of the purgebox thrummed in my hand. I pressed my finger against the sensor. “Kylan Rogers.”
The automated latch inside the box clicked as it verified my voice, but the box didn’t open. I flipped it over in my palm, and my stomach sank. The arrow on the status dial was in the red. Full. Processing Required.
Had I really filled it so fast? It had only been a week since my last Processing. I tapped the dial, hoping it was a glitch, but the arrow stayed firmly lodged on the right. I’d run into a bad string of luck lately: job loss, money trouble, and now a failed relationship. For a twenty-six-year-old with my entire life ahead of me, I was going a whole lot of nowhere. I sank onto my bed.
The anguish I’d planned to purge—a surge of regret and loneliness over yesterday’s breakup—twisted in my chest. I needed it out. Now. The burgundy glow of my previously purged emotions pulsed from the box’s seams. Trying to cram an extra purge into a full box could overload the whole contraption, but my regret and loneliness spiraled with frustration and despair, and I was desperate. I traced my fingers over the box’s latch.
I’d never be able to afford a new one if this one busted. An icy shiver sped through me at the thought of feeling like this forever, unable to purge even a single painful emotion. How had people ever lived like that? The boxless down by the docks still did, the homeless and jobless, unable to afford a purgebox... but half of them went mad by their thirties. No. I couldn’t risk it.
I set the box down on my nightstand. My hands trembled as I reached for my digicalendar. I flicked open this month’s spend account. Seventeen credits. Even if I walked to the processing office, a purgebox scrub by a Certified Processor would set me back ten credits. I’d barely have enough left for food. I sighed and closed the calendar. Being out on my own as an adult was supposed to mean freedom. I’d completed university, gotten my specialist certification, gotten my dream job as a Digitech working from home rather than stuck in a central office, and all for what? I lived alone. I’d worked long hours providing customer support to dozens of people who could afford gadgets I’d never dream of owning, for a few measly credits per hour. I barely made enough to pay my rent and food even before I lost that job in the latest round of layoffs. I’d worked so much I had no time for friends, and even when by a stroke of luck I met a woman I liked, I failed at every relationship I attempted. Now I was one last paycheck from zero income. I’d have to spend next week scouting for interviews, hope I got lucky. When had life gotten so hard?
A surge of piercing emotions twisted in my chest like a tightening screw. I took a shaky breath. I would just have to keep them in me, for now. My final paycheck came in two weeks; I would have to make it until then. The thought squeezed like panic in my chest. This much aching? The loneliness? For another two weeks?
I would never make it through those interviews in one piece if I didn’t purge.
I flicked on my digicalendar again and scanned through my upcoming bills. Rent wasn’t due for two-and-a-half weeks. I had heat-up meal pods in the pantry. I could squeeze by on that until next paycheck. No other major bills were coming up. In the meantime, if I was careful what I spent...
The Processing Center would soon close for the night. I grabbed my purgebox, threw on a coat, and hurried out the door.
It was a twenty-minute brisk walk to the Processing office downtown. My breath puffed the January air. As I turned onto the block which passed the docks, the towering Processing building came into view. Almost there.
A group of people huddled like mushrooms around the base of a large oak. Boxless, a whole family of them. These were people generally considered too emotionally unstable to hold a job but too poor to afford regular maintenance on a purgebox, stuck in a cycle of poverty. The docks were full of them, some transient and others regular fixtures. There had been government programs to help them, once, but most were disbanded after the last political turnover. A young woman from the huddle turned her face toward me as I passed.
My heart sped. Reina. She’d been in one of my classes at university, but stopped coming partway through the semester. Had that been because of cost? Her lips were chapped white, her eyes sunken. An uncomfortable pang I couldn’t identify twisted in my gut. Our eyes met and her gaze hung heavy against mine, hollow and hopeless.
Recognition sparked and her cheeks reddened. She looked away.
I hunched my shoulders and hurried my pace.
I reached the Processing center, skirted past the empty waiting benches, and pressed a button on the outer door. A screen blinked to life on the face of the building, and a stern-looking older woman stared back at me. “Name?”
“Appointment or walk-in?”
There was a pause, then a metal tray flipped open on the door and a blinking disc clanked into it. I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d arrived in time, and grabbed the disc.
“It will buzz when you’re next. Have payment ready.” Her face vanished and the tray flipped shut.
I headed for the nearest waiting bench.
A flurry of sniffles arrested me before I made it to my seat. I turned back toward the Processing Center, and saw a flash of blonde hair as a woman hurried past me. The door clanged shut behind her. I only glimpsed her face, but enough to see splotchy skin, red eyes, tears. The shock of her raw emotion shot through me. Even the Boxless I’d seen at the docks hadn’t looked this upset.
“Hey,” I called after her before I realized what I was doing. “Wait up!”
The woman spun toward me, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry, I—I can’t—“ She shoved her hands in her pockets and looked away.
As I took in her face—pretty, about my age—I realized the enormous social breach I’d committed. To display unregulated emotion in public was like going outside in your undergarments. She’d been trying to hurry away, and I’d drawn attention to it. I backpedaled. “Didn’t mean to intrude. But are you okay?”
Her gaze flicked to mine. “I’m fine. I just need to get home.”
“Were you here for Processing?” I knew I was pushing it, but she was the first person I’d seen this upset in ages. Her clothes were high quality and her hair looked recently cut and styled. She seemed too put-together and healthy to be from the docks, but only a Boxless would have this much unpurged emotion. For some reason I couldn’t explain even to myself, I felt a desperate need to make sense of it.
She worried her lip between her teeth, then pulled one hand from her pocket. A purgebox pulsed burgundy in her palm. “Been full for two weeks. I keep making appointments, hoping my credits will have come through by then, but—“ She shrugged.
“Been a slow month at the Salon. Such a hard year, with my mom sick, and now my little brother—“ Tears pooled in her eyes again and she blinked them away. “I’m sorry, I’m not usually like—“
The disc buzzed in my hand and I jumped.
Her eyes flicked to my hand. “It’s your turn.”
I glanced back at the Processing building. A green light glowed atop the door; it had unlocked for my entry.
A reckless thought burst into a gallop in my mind like a panicked horse, and my common sense dangled from the stirrups as it dragged me away. “Take it.” I shoved the disc at her.
She stepped back. “What? No, I can’t.”
“Take my turn. I’ll pay for it.” I was too far in now to go back, so I stepped forward. When she didn’t run, I pressed the disc into her hand. My mind raced, but I blocked it out. I had enough credits for a processing, for one processing. I could pay for hers, and I would figure the rest out later.
She closed her fingers around the disc. “You’re serious?”
I nodded. “Absolutely.”
Her shoulders relaxed with an exhale. “Thank you.” She pulled her other hand from her pocket and held it out. “I’m Lara.”
A pinprick of anxiety sparked in my chest, but I smiled and shook her hand. “Kylan. And it’s no problem.”
The face in the building scowled as we approached. “You registered for one processing.”
“There’s been a change.” I deposited the blinking disc into the slot and the slot swallowed it, then vanished.
The old woman glared as I explained the situation, then sighed. “Alright, but we take payment up front.” A panel slid open in the face of the building, revealing a small inset square with a green scanning beam.
“Of course.” I flicked open the payment account on my digicalendar and held it up to the scanner. The green beam spiraled across my screen, then flashed red.
“Payment denied,” the old woman huffed. The scanning panel whooshed shut.
I yanked my digicalendar back from the scanner and tried to ignore the discomfort of Lara’s stare as I skimmed the screen. Five credits remaining. “This is a mistake. The credits were there earlier.”
“Not my problem.” The monitor flicked to black.
Heat flooded my cheeks as I turned to Lara. “I’m so sorry, I’m not sure what...”
My eyes caught a flashing icon at the top of my digicalendar’s notification bar. A notification box popped up when I tapped it. Annual VidCon membership renewal. Thank you for your payment.
I forced back a groan. How had I forgotten to cancel that? My stomach plunged. I couldn’t even afford to go to VidCon this year, and the friends I’d used to go with hadn’t even talked to me in months. And now—
I looked back at Lara to find her watching me. “I’m sorry, really.”
She took a step back. “It’s fine. Thanks, anyway. I should go.” She turned away.
I glanced at my account. Five credits. “Wait.”
She turned back slowly. “Yes?”
This was reckless, and I knew it. Irresponsible. But the thought of heading home alone--
“Would you like to get a coffee with me? My treat.”
She smiled. “I’d love to.”
Two hours later, we still sat at a small table in the café, enjoying our second cups of coffee.
My cheeks were sore from laughing as Lara glanced at her digicalendar. “Oh, shoot! I have to go.”
I pushed back my chair. “I enjoyed this.”
She smiled and stood. “So did I.”
I worked up my nerve just as she slipped her second arm into her coat. “Do you want to swap numbers? Do this again sometime?”
Her face flicked from smile to pity in an instant. “I didn’t mean to give you the wrong idea. I have a boyfriend.”
My heart sank. “Oh.”
“But thank you.” She flashed me another smile. “This was exactly what I needed today.”
My emotions warred like wrestling sumo-bots in my chest. “Yeah, sure... no problem.”
A blast of cold air rushed in as the door swung shut behind her.
I grabbed my coat from the chair and stared at the door for a moment, dreading the frigid walk home. “Screw it.”
I used a portion of my three remaining credits to order one last coffee to go.
The walk home was long, dark, and cold. A huddle of people still sheltered beneath the tree near the docks. They had built a small fire, and it cast dancing shadows along the branches as I passed. I did not see Reina among them.
As I clutched my fresh coffee and plodded along, my thoughts cast back to my evening with Lara. She’d discussed her family, her job at the Salon, how her feet ached and the money was never enough for all the bills. I’d bared my own woes, how my friends had all moved on to better jobs, how I worked all the time but barely made ends meet, the pains of living alone. Her mouth twisted in sympathy as I shared I’d been dumped last week for the third time this year. Then, our complaints exhausted, we drifted into easy conversation, even laughter. It had been comfortable. Freeing.
I slipped one hand into my pocket and closed my fingers over my purgebox. It still thrummed, full to bursting, but somehow the agony I’d had earlier in the afternoon had dulled. Though tinged with disappointment from how the evening ended, a comforting warmth lingered in my chest. Perhaps this evening’s conversation was what I’d needed, too. How long had it been since I’d talked to someone, really talked about anything of substance, how long since I’d truly been listened to? Beyond this evening, I couldn’t remember. Unpleasant emotions weren’t discussed in polite society; they were purged and stored and processed, and when they returned, purged and stored again. But tonight felt different. We’d talked about everything. About real things. And now I found the emotions were still there, but shared and acknowledged, the feelings had morphed. Now there was room for me, too. The pain was smaller, somehow, and I was bigger.
Maybe a purgebox wasn’t the only path to relief.
A second cluster of people hunkered beneath the overhang of a building as I reached the end of the block, with a few lone forms huddled beneath smaller eaves spaced along the building’s wall. I caught myself scanning their faces. As I passed I made eye contact with a solitary man, old and withered, the same dead gaze as Reina.
My fingers were numb from cold in my pockets, but the horse in my chest galloped wild again and dragged me flopping along. I turned back.
The man’s face tipped up at me as I approached.
I kneeled in front of him and held out my cup of coffee. “Do you like coffee? It’s fresh, unopened.”
His eyes widened, then he shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m fine.”
My heart thumped against my ribs, but I nodded. “Okay. Sorry. I just thought you looked cold. But is there anything else I could do? Something I could get you? Or maybe just...talk?”
The man stared at me.
My cheeks flushed hot even in the stinging cold. I staggered to my feet. “I’m sorry, this was weird, I’ll just--“
“No, wait.” He looked up at me. “Gets lonely out here. Talk would be nice.”
I smiled and sat in front of him. “I’m Kylan.”
The man smiled back. “Dale. Is it too late to accept that coffee?”
In the distance I saw Reina edge in, settle herself in the shadow of the building. She watched us with careful eyes that glanced away when they caught me looking.
Dale followed my gaze. “Sweet girl,” he said. “Father died a while back. We try to look after her, you know, but can’t do much for her.”
I handed Dale the coffee. “I’ll be right back.”
Reina’s eyes followed me as I approached, and she tensed as I neared.
“Do you remember me? I’m—“
“Kylan. Yeah, I remember.” Her eyes slid off mine, focused on the water beyond the docks.
“Dale and I were just—“
“What do you want, Kylan?”
I stared at her. “I just...” I paused. What did I want? “I just want to talk. To help.”
She laughed coldly. “Help is more than talk.”
The purgebox thrummed in my pocket. I pulled it out.
Reina stared at it, then glanced away.
Stupid dang horse in my chest was galloping again. I swung myself into the saddle and took the reins.
“Here.” I shoved the purgebox at her. “Take it.”
She pulled her hands back and scooted away. “What? No. No way.”
“Take it. I mean it. I’ll—I’ll—“ I had no plan for that part of it, but apparently that didn’t matter to me lately. “I’ll figure something else out. You need it more than I do.”
Her face twisted in anger. “You have no idea what I need.” She shoved to her feet and stalked away.
I returned to Dale in a fog of confusion, and lowered myself beside him and watched the moonlight wave on the water while he drank his coffee. I shoved the purgebox back in my coat pocket and pulled the collar of my coat close around my face. I was no longer in the mood to talk.
He took a sip of the coffee and looked over at me. “Street girls ain’t always simple.” He shrugged. “Too many layers of pain.”
I turned to him and studied his face. Beneath the wrinkles and unkempt hair, his eyes were intelligent and his clothes, now that I looked more closely, had once been high-quality—they were just worn now, and dirty.
“Dale, how did you end up here on the docks?”
“You’re the first person to ever ask me that.”
I studied his face, the wrinkles, the eyes that spoke of something deeper. “I want to know.”
Dale met my gaze, then nodded. “I’ll tell you, but you’ve gotta come back tomorrow.”
“You can’t tell me now?”
“Not for that; come back tomorrow for Reina.”
I laughed. “Pretty sure she won’t want to see me.”
Dale plopped the empty cup on the ground beside him and scratched his beard. “The way I see it, people are like cats in autocab engines. Can’t help ‘em til they come out enough for you to reach ‘em.”
I tugged my coat tighter. “And if they don’t?”
He shrugged again. “You help the ones you can.”
I fingered the purgebox in my pocket, hot and thrumming. “Can I help you?”
Dale smiled. “We all need helping sometime.” He held my gaze a moment. “I’ll tell you my story, but only if you tell me yours.”
The moon winked on the water as I stared out in thought. “Deal.”
The purgebox hummed idly in my pocket as Dale and I chatted in the moonlight.