This story started its life as a prompt from Terribleminds based on a cocktail (the Antoine Special). I finished it recently for a sci-fi Anthology (details to come!), the theme for which is mankind’s interaction with technology.
Angela pressed a finger into the lion’s mouth at precisely 7.30pm. Her instructions had been to not seek entry before this time, and tardiness was not forgiven at Antoine’s. So here she stood in the semi-darkness, shaking against the autumn wind and growing more impatient with each passing minute. She had dressed lightly for the occasion. The black satin dress which still gave some shape to her wilted body, her favourite pearls, and the old engagement ring which she now wore on her right hand.
The black door into which the lion’s head was embedded swung open a few seconds later and she was greeted at the door by a young woman. “Good evening Angela, welcome to Antoine’s. Please, this way”. She ushered Angela inside a dimly lit vestibule, not much warmer than it was outside.
“My name is Marie, and I will be taking care of you this evening.”
She led Angela down a narrow hallway illuminated by the soft ultraviolet hue of a fish tank built into the floor. Tiny unsleeping fish darted away at each tap of Angela’s feet.
Other than the trickle of an unseen fountain, there were no other sounds. “Quiet night?” she asked, as she was ushered into a tiny room.
“We only host one patron at a time to preserve the privacy of our guests. In here please.”
The dome shaped room was completely bare apart from a small table and chair in the centre. The walls were completely smooth and glowed softly from within.
“This is your private dining room. Please feel free to move around in here, but you are required to remain in this room until your dining experience is complete. Afterwards, you may choose to remain in here, or there are other rest places available if you want to continue your journey in a different environment.”
“So, how does this work? Angela turned to the girl. “I’m expecting to get more than just sitting around in the dark here.”
“Of course.” She pulled the chair out and held it for Angela, placing a napkin on her lap before walking around to stand in front of her. She poured some water into a tall chilled glass for her guest.
“Alcohol can interfere with the dining experience of our guests.”
“All the water I can drink then, I suppose.”
Marie held a hand out to her guest. “May I take the contract now please?”
“The contract? You mean the card?” she pulled a small gold card out of her purse and handed it to Marie. “Now, I’ve made a special request to meet Thomas Jones tonight. My son. That’s in the contract too.”
“Thankyou. I will relay your request to Antoine. We try and accommodate our patrons where possible, but occasionally things can be beyond the control of even Antoine. Unfortunately, we can’t make any guarantees on what you will see.”
“Well the whole reason I’m here is to see my Thomas. That’s the arrangement. Are you telling me that you can’t do that now?”
Marie gave her a small smile as she studied the card for a few seconds before tucking it into her breast pocket. Angela watched the girl’s eyes move over the card as she scanned its contents. Not such a natural beauty after all then.
“It’s getting harder to tell your kind apart these days, isn’t it?” she studied Marie’s face with narrowed eyes.
She didn’t take the bait. “Was there anything else that you would like to confirm, or has anything changed in your circumstances which needs to be reflected within the contract?” Angela shook her head. “No, I’m prepared to go ahead as declared. I’m in as sound a state of mind and body as I’m going to be, so let’s get on with it. I’ve wasted enough time already.” She lit up a cigarette. “I suppose I can still do this in here?”
Marie dipped her head as she held up a small silver bell. “If you need anything, ring the bell and I’ll be here. I will see you shortly with your first course. And please remember to taste every dish at least once in order to fully engage in the experience.”
Angela heard the soft swish of a door close behind her as she stared at the blank walls, waiting for something to happen. So this is what your life savings have earnt you. A menu lay on the table. Gold on black, like the lion at the door. She held it up without looking inside. Surprise me, Antoine.
Angela had stopped wasting her money on expensive meals since the treatment had killed off most of her taste buds. But she wasn’t here for a meal. She’d heard about Antoine’s through her friend Carol. And when Angela had mentioned to her that she wanted to see Thomas before she died, it was Carol who had suggested that she might still be able to see him.
“It’s expensive, but for a certain clientele it’s worth it. And, you never know what you’ll see, Angela. It’s not for everyone.. God I don’t think I would dare look into my subconscious.”
She glanced up as Marie walked back into the room carrying a bamboo serving tray which she placed in front of Angela. “Your first course. Enjoy your experience.”
A plate of sashimi glittered like jewels before her. A flash of blood red tuna against a pale, white-fleshed pearl of kingfish. Her mouth watered at the rich saltiness of sea urchin roe. She dipped her nose and inhaled, the smell taking her back to her childhood by the sea. She was five again, running through the sand with her brothers. Digging moats around sandcastles. Squealing as her father held her up high and dunked her feet into the freezing waves. The domed room lit up and came alive as her memories filled its walls, projecting long-forgotten treasures of her past before her eyes. Each bite purged a new memory. Her childhood by the sea, followed by an older Angela at the precipice of adulthood, her head buried in fat books about torts and crimes. Too busy now for the beach, or for friends.
A young Angela feeding her ambition as she fed her newborn baby. Thomas.
The tears fell unabated as she watched herself nurse Thomas for the first time. Angela back at work two months after giving birth.
She picked up the bell, just as Marie reappeared with another plate.
“This isn’t what I came for.” She dabbed a napkin under her eyes. “I asked to speak with my son. Not this. Why am I being shown this?”
Marie removed the bamboo tray and placed a white plate before her.
“It’s usual for our guests to occasionally face things from their past which they would rather not see, and I’m sorry if this is upsetting. As I said earlier, there are no guarantees with this process. You need to let it run its course.”
“Well, that’s not good enough.” Angela threw the napkin back on the table. “I paid for a service and I’m expecting to have it delivered. Do you know what I do for a living?” What I did. “And if you can’t guarantee me what I paid for then the deal’s off. I’m done here.” She stood up to leave.
“I’m sorry Angela, but you know the arrangement.” Marie stood in front of her, blocking her way. “Once you’ve cross the threshold, once you walk in that front door, you have waived your right to rescind the contract.”
“Well, you can’t force me to stay in here.” She grabbed the water and threw it at Marie. The girl jumped back, instinctively pulling an arm over her face as the glass brushed past her hair and smashed into the wall behind her. “Why don’t you short circuit, you fucking robot? You’ll never understand. You’re not real, you don’t know what real emotion feels like,” she cried.
Marie grabbed Angela by the shoulders and pushed her back into her chair, blinking to clear water from her eyes. Angela grabbed at the plate as Marie took her hands and held them back down against the table. “Please Angela, please. You chose this experience. Now please let it run its course.” She picked the bamboo tray up off the floor and turned to leave.
Angela tried to follow her out but the girl was gone. Angela looked around to see where she went. The door which she came through was no longer visible. She ran her hands over the smooth walls and found nothing. “Open the fucking door!” she screamed into the empty room. Her pounding heart filled her ears as she sat back down to catch her breath.
Before her sat a piece of meat. Blue. The way she used to have it when she still ate meat. The sight of it further inflamed her rage as she had told them that she no longer ate meat, and the smell of it made her stomach turn.
But Marie’s words played on her mind. You need to taste it to see what comes next. She picked up the cutlery with shaking hands and sank the knife into one corner. It came away like soft butter.
The room flickered back to life.
Waitressing at Joe’s Diner. Flirting with Ben on those first few dates. First class honors. Her first job as a young law graduate, those grueling ninety hour weeks. Their wedding night. Thomas’s first birthday. Thomas in daycare, the last child left waiting to be collected. Thomas in primary school, waiting to be collected.
Becoming partner at the firm. The first time Thomas got in trouble with the police for vandalising a train.
She closed her eyes. No more.
She picked up the bell rang it till Marie stood in front of her.
“Please. Please I’m begging you. Just let me see him happy for once. For one last time. That’s all. You can end it after that I promise.” She was crying openly now.
Marie took her tiny hand into her own. “I am sorry Angela, I truly am, but we cannot show you anything but the truth inside your own self. We don’t make dreams here, or show you things to hurt you intentionally.” She paused before continuing. “I’m sorry.. but these are the truths inside your own self.”
Angela pulled her hand away and stood up. She was shaking now. “Don’t say that. You don’t know who I am. You don’t know the things I’ve had to do for my family.” She flung the plate at the wall, splattering it with meat juices.
“I gave up my entire life to give my son the life I never had, and now all I see is what a terrible mother I’ve been.” She crouched on the floor holding her face in her hands. “This is a nightmare.”
Marie placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry to hear that you see it that way.” She helped Angela back to the table and poured her some water before stepping back out of the room.
Through her watery eyes the room appeared brighter, as the walls become translucent and fell away.
“Angela.” another voice whispered at her. Antoine?
The restaurant was gone and she found herself lying in a hospital bed. “You know why, Angela.” “Thomas is, gone.”
“Gone.” Angela murmured the word to herself as she watched Marie adjust a drip into her arm. But it’s not Marie. “Am I dreaming?” she slurred, struggling to get a bearing of her surroundings.
“No Angela, you’re at the Regen Facility, remember? You came here to experience your memories.” Marie was adjusting a monitor band on Angela’s arm. Her face was the same the as the girl she’d met earlier, but there were no smile lines around her mouth, her eyes not as forgiving.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Marie turned to look at her. “The truth is that at our end we must face our true selves, Angela. And that person may not be who we had set out to become.” Angela blinked, trying to clear her head as she watched Marie inject her with a clear liquid. A jolt of cold shot up her arm. “Is this the end now?”
“The end? In this place, the end is whatever your minds tell you it is Angela. Now, do you want some dessert?”