Suraq, Tregrihi, whenever.
Evelin was alive, but in another sense she was dead.
Her life was full of those contrasts. Tonight, she was both awake and asleep, sitting on an empty bus on her way to an empty space to buy things she didn’t need with money she didn’t have. She was doing something and she was doing nothing at all; living the Tregrihan dream and dying in a brand new way.
It wasn’t important that she had an assignment due in six hours.
Through the smeary window, a colossal red-and-white panel glared at her, letting her know a department store was coming up. Evelin told the bus to stop and it did so without replying. She slipped out into the night the way she’d often done in these past few years, only this time the place she’d come from was driving away without her.
As Evelin floated carlessly through the lonely, streetlit parking bays, it struck her that department stores must be valuable places. They took up so much space that could have been used for other things: offices, apartments, or even one big public garden. They were large enough to be a thousand homes, but there wasn’t any floor of the building you could live in. There were many, however, where you could see all sorts of possible lives you could be living, if only you had the space, money, and help to assemble the complete set.
The store itself was, as ever, a big huge horrible box. Their shape had fascinated her for some time: like unwrapped gift crates, filled to the brim with every item unimaginable. If you were part of the right programme, you could dive in there without anything on hand and come away with an armful of things. Evelin was lucky enough to be part of a company which included her in a suitable programme; a company whose assignment she ought to complete if she wanted to remain a part of that programme.
The entrance to the store was through revolving doors: a needless delight, a temporary shifting space, but it was so easy to get stuck inside going round forever. Behind them the frosted windows were glowing pink, then blue, then red from a rotating display. The air which filtered through and then not was crisp like old money, like a burned-out bakery. Evelin realised that exploring all those predesigned realities was going to be a challenge for her, as she hadn’t lately been able to see very well. Ever since she’d changed her mind about love she’d begun to lose her vision. This was all a waste of time.
Or it was the inspiration she needed: her assignment could be a world set inside a department store. It would represent someone’s mind, and each department could represent aspects of their life, and the shelves could be filled with memories, kept safe in case they needed to be brought out again, but becoming unreadable through dust and decay. Then the person would die and all the memories would be thrown away. It was a stupid idea.
It was also nearly dawn. Evelin should have been getting back to work on something, no matter how stupid it was, but in another sense she should have been getting to sleep.
“I am an adult,” she decided, and walked through the revolving doors.
Everything was available, unless it was sold out. The ground floor of the department store sold ground things: objects for households; clothes for good men and children; appliances for a modern home. The departments themselves were indistinguishable to her eyes, but there were other ways of knowing: the prepackaged smells, the curves of what must be mannequins, the sharp light bouncing off of corrugated boxes and plastic display pieces. She couldn’t sense anything that she wanted, but she kept looking.
Everything on every shelf had been made by someone, or made by a machine that someone had made, and then other people and machines had packed and labelled and shipped and stocked them. The department store didn’t want its customers to think about any of this. Evelin was supposed to find that things were there and decide which things she wanted. When she bought a thing, the divine power of ownership would wipe its history clean. Then she could take it home with her and begin a fresh story for it, with her at the centre of its life.
There was something about this thought which made Evelin want to pick up the nearest high-duty rolling pin and charge about, smashing everything her flimsy limbs could reach, then flick the wrong switch on a demo-cooker and let the whole mess burn. This was not like her. She would never do those things because she knew it would ruin it for everyone else.
Instead, she crouched down to get a closer look at one of the boxes on sale. She reached out and determined that it was metal, with a glass window in the front. A microwave, and a contemporary one at that, because she could also feel it had a keypad and not a twist-handle for counting the time.
“Where did you come from?” she whispered to the microwave, “What was your family like? What kind of food did you enjoy growing up?”
It was silent: no response; not even a ping. She found herself reaching for the kind of button she’d find next to a painting in a museum, hoping it would tell her what she was looking at and why it was important, but there was nothing there except the price tag.
“Should I tell you about myself?” She nearly told the microwave that she used to live in another world, but she was tired of saying it. “I used to live,” she said, and left it there.
Down another aisle, there were displays of things Evelin could try. One of them burst to life when she walked near it.
“Artisan tools for the efficient modern baker!” cried the sing-song voice, simmering with prerecorded static, “In hectic times, bake your pleasure! An artpiece in every kitchen!”
After taking a moment to calm herself down from the shock, Evelin picked up an implement from a display cup. It had smooth tendrils at one end and a tough grip at the other. It was meant to apply pressure for a stronger product.
Here was an idea: her assignment could be a cake. What reflected the soul better than something crafted for consumption? Though one of the store’s departments must sell cakes as well, and those cakes would be more perfect than Evelin’s could ever be. Besides, it was cruel to value something that was meant to be destroyed. It was more appropriate for them to stay here with no care attached.
While she was deliberating, an assistant with a red-and-white shirt had come over to see who was making noise.
“Hello! I am here to help,” they said, “What are you looking for?”
“Hello. I’m Evelin.” It didn’t sound right. “I wanted to try baking. Is there anything here that would be good for a beginner?”
The assistant tapped a large box. “How about this?”
Evelin stared blankly.
“It’s a combination mixer for cupcakes,” they explained, “You pick a kit depending on which flavour you want and pour the ingredients into the mouth of the machine. Then you squeeze the handle—that’s the fun part—and wait until a finished product comes out. If it doesn’t work there’s another button you can press to call for someone who knows how to do it. At least, that’s what happens if you have the subscription.”
The assistant picked up the box and gave it to Evelin, who kept blanking at it.
“Does this teach me how to make my own cupcakes? I want to find something I can use in my work. I’m a world-designer.”
They shook their head. “The machine does the work for you. It saves you time so you can get on with other things. If you want to change it up, there’s all sorts of different flavour packets you can buy.”
The lights were bright and confusing. Evelin nodded along until she was back at the pink–blue–red entrance, a large box in her arms. The colours, she realised, were from an advertising display on the wall opposite the revolving doors. She nearly got stuck in the swooshing gateway, but she pushed through until she was back out in the cold morning light.
The first bus of the day didn’t come for another hour. She sat down on the kerb under a bus shelter, its bench long-since broken and disappeared. Hopefully it had ended up in a better place, and was being used for something more. Through partly scrubbed-off graffiti, a pinprick of pink from the advert still glowed. Evelin clutched the heavy box tight to her legs and waited.