[play .mp3]
back to christmas

by Miracle Jones

The photo sheets keep coming. 96 photos at once of different women projected on the wall, all laid out in an eight-by-twelve grid. 

“B7,” says Vitus de la Fest—wine disrupter, wine mogul—the next enthroned incubus of the franchise. He has only been doing this for an hour and he is already starting to feel like the frozen gaskets of his soul will soon burst. The next grid comes up, but he looks away. Instead, he relights the joint that has gone out in the ash tray balanced on the arm of the sleek black recliner in the Rose City production office. He takes a drag and then a sip of Malbec. 

“You doing okay, Batch?” asks Nessica. 


“As you grind, the algorithm’ll learn what you like and it’ll put the most likely little sweetie right in the center of the grid, making it easier for you and faster for us—unless you just need to be contrarian. It’ll also start auto-eliminating girls for you, only showing you the ones you will fucking LOVE.”

“Feels a little pushy,” says Vitus. “Like the machine is in charge.”

“You’re the only one in charge here, Batch,” says Nessica. “You need anything? I’d suck your cock, but you know the rules. We need you RESTLESS.”

He looks at her. Is she kidding? She is older...can’t tell how old exactly…but very attractive. Ingratiating. Glowing with charismatic oils. Pinguid and smooth. Definitely too smart for him. She makes him fucking uneasy, like a spider spinning its web behind a showerhead. 

He looks back at the grid. He hates the fact that he is indeed the most instantly attracted to the four women in the center four squares.

“What’s this sheet? What’s their ‘demo’?” 

Stealing her word.

“You like to know, huh? These are all white doctors. Asian doctors are next, if you really gotta know. The rest of the day is going to be more doctors, nurses, dentists, and admins—black and brown—and then we’ll start on teachers.”

“Teachers? Like for community college or something?”

“A lot of these b-words are going to have little kids, Batch. The kids come along for the ride. Rose City has a school. You know this.”

“I keep feeling like I’m picking the wrong person, you know? Maybe if I could slow down a bit….do them one at a time…”  

“You’ll get more decisive as you go. Ha, you’d better, considering what comes next! We tried doing them one at a time when we first started, but we get ten million applicants a season these days from all over the world. If you swiped for five hours a day non-stop—every day for an entire year—you’d only get through six million women. And that’s assuming that you only spent one second on each face. The algorithm is better. Trust the algorithm.”  


“F4,” says Vitus mechanically. “WAIT. Stop, stop, stop, stop! No, go back.”

Nessica pulls up the last grid. F4 is highlighted with a rose-red ring, signifying his choice. Vitus gets up out of his chair and walks across the room, peering not at F4 but at F5 beside it. The woman in the photo is undoubtedly beautiful, but she is trying to look as haunted as possible. She has a slender neck and her hair is all piled up on top of her head. She is not smiling. There are bags under her eyes and she is wearing a white button-up shirt that is probably four sizes too big, which makes her look even more slight and intense.

“I know her,” says Vitus. “At least….yeah, I know her. Don’t I?”

“Shenan Hammer,” says Nessica. “From Tennessee.”

Nessica hits the button that turns all the still photos into gifs. The women primp and mug, turning slightly to show off their best features. Shenan Hammer barely moves. She flinches and then delivers the ghost of a smile.

“No, I don’t know anybody from Tennessee. The name isn’t familiar. I don’t remember how I know her. Is that possible?”

“If the algorithm is doing its job, at this point you’re gonna start seeing people who’re composites of some of your most strong inclinations. You like wispy frails. So we’re gonna distill down the perfect essence of wispy frail for you. We’re gonna find you a frail who is so wispy and demon-haunted that you’ll be able to pick your teeth with her. Pop balloons. Do a tracheotomy.”

“I like all kinds of women,” says Vitus.

“Sure, Batch.”

“But like this….crosses the line. I KNOW her.”

“Shenandoah Cameron Hammer,” says Nessica. “Waitress at the Sevierville, Tennessee Waffle House. She’s 29, which is a Tennessee 40. I bet she fucks like she’s 40, too. She looks like she’d light a match on your chest and smoke while she pisses in your face as she comes. Calling you ‘stud’ in a voice that cracks with boredom. Just dripping contempt, but ready to party. She’s pretty.”

Vitus sits back down in the chair, spreading his legs, putting his head in his hands. He looks back up at the woman quickly, trying to trick himself into seeing her all of a sudden again, to get the flavor back. It works. When he sees her face again, the same feeling pierces him deep in his guts. Small-town longing mixed with regret and breathtaking lust. At first, he went for F4 mechanically without even looking at the other women on the grid. Why bother? Let the algorithm have its way! And then his eyes darted sideways and his heart beat quick, filling his face with hot blood and some secret emotion like shame….

“Says here she’s studying to be a computer programmer,” says Nessica. “Alright, so she’s got depths. Or at least multiple surfaces. Don’t you do something with computers, too?”

She winks at him.

“F5,” says Vitus, his mouth dry. “I meant to say F5 is who I want. Her. That girl.”

It takes awhile for Nessica to flip over to the next grid. She types something in the darkness. She moves between a few different media formats, even writing something down manually on paper. Vitus just stares at the woman on the screen, feeling his brains boil.

“What are you writing?” he asks after awhile.

“Never. You. Mind,” says Nessica. 


Here it comes: the second to last grid full of women to choose from. How many months has he spent just sitting here for hours each day, letting the computer winnow down ten million women into sixty thousand?

“G4,” says Vitus, leaning forward. 

These are all heiresses. He doesn’t recognize any of them, even though some of them are famous, but they all have a vaguely-inbred quality and a general handsome horseyness. Maybe it is something about their perfect teeth. 

“You ready?” asks Nessica before hitting the button for the last grid.

“So ready.”

“Last one!”

“Last one.”

Nessica clicks the switch.

“F…ssssssss,” he starts to say automatically and then he stops himself. All the pictures are of Nessica. Nessica in various sultry poses. 96 squares of Nessica, some of them where she is showing a considerable amount of tits and ass. The still photos become gifs. 96 little videos of Nessica stripping.

“Oh no,” says Vitus.

“Just a little joke,” says Nessica. “Unless you like it.”

She gets up and stands over him in the darkness. The projection falls across her body. She is wearing a sportjacket and a modest leather skirt and she has fifteen to twenty gold bands jangling on each wrist. Her fingernails are short and unpainted. She kneels down in front of him.  He backs up in his seat, caught off guard. She reaches for his belt. He flinches, trying to slap her hand away, but she is insistent. She glares at him and he wilts.

“Batch, you need this,” she says. “You have been working so hard. You are done for now. You can relax with me.”

She unloosens his big jangly belt buckle. He knows women love the sound of it sliding down his hips. He doesn’t know where to look. She pulls down his pants. He looks at the various images of her on the grid: 96 different versions of a woman who is technically his boss. Nessica grinning. Nessica pouting. Nessica with a wide open, red-lipsticked mouth. Nessica pushing her tits together. Nessica lifting her skirt to show the shadow of her bush.

He hasn’t masturbated in weeks. It is all part of his extremely-thorough and detailed contract.

As soon as she touches him, his neck-hairs all stand up straight and his skin crawls deliciously. She puts the tip of his cock in her mouth and it feels like aloe vera on a burn. She drools on him, spitting and gagging, lacing her strong fingers around his dick, stroking him rhythmically and efficiently.

“I like to get it really wet,” she says.

She places one hand under his balls. Her bracelets slide down her wrist. The cold metal touches his thighs. She spits on him and then fucks him hard with her mouth, not letting him squirm away, moving harder on him as he fights.

She lifts up before he even knows he is done. She is smarter than he is. He is done.

“Unnh,” he says, spurting all over her hands and onto his own belly. She smiles, rubbing semen into her hair, playing with it between her fingers.

“All better,” says Nessica. “Contractually, your penis now returns to you.”

She pats him on the leg.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “Are you one of the girls?” He doesn’t know what else to say. She slaps him. Hard. Not playfully. Her bracelets crash into each other like a sprung slinky. She splits his fucking lip, actually. There is still come on her chin. She wipes it off with a crinkly-eyed grin.

“Sorry, Batch, but that’s just the absolute worst thing you could possibly ever say to me. Oh my god: are you getting hard again? What is that, like a thirty second turnaround? Did your momma slap you like that?”

She did, actually, and for less.


“Realistically you are only gonna LOVE about a hundred,” Nessica tells him in one of their daily strategy sessions. “The human mind just can’t keep more than a hundred people straight. That’s all part of the fun. Your top hundred honeys is gonna keep changing, though.”

He throws up in the helicopter on the way to the first night’s kickoff celebration. He is beset by three different PAs who change his pants (some splashback), freshen his breath, ply him with seltzer and crackers, redo his make-up, and apply new fixative to his hair. By the time they are done, he is no longer nervous through sheer force of their will. He can’t even remember vomiting. It didn’t happen.

He can hear the cheers over the thump of the chopper rotors before they even land. The wild voices of the contestants down in the stadium below shake the windows and curl up his belly.

The helicopter spirals down to land on the fifty yard line in the middle of the Rose City arena. He gets out, grinning, waving. A marching band starts playing, composed entirely of contestants all wearing short skirts and tall hats with long feathers sticking out of the back. Camera drones circle everywhere, but there are no security familiars allowed in Rose City. Nobody is allowed personal protection or access to the outside world here. The desert air is dry and clear, but temperate.

The stands are full to capacity with cheering young women—all of them ages 21 to 40, with a strict curve peaking at age 31, which is five years younger than he is and coincidentally the median age of Rose City viewers. If they were yelling loudly before, now their cheers are a great culty hormonal squall—sexy, mocking, and baleful—that swells up his chest and buoys him up so high with Celebrity that he feels like a spinning UFO. Ten thousand women will be cut today based upon this first Rose City welcome ceremony. Complex psychosexual diagnostics are hooked up to the hidden camera attached to his temple—sensors feeding from his goddang BRAIN! Fifty subtle biomechanical sex metrics are being analyzed in real time by technicians in Las Vegas, the closest real city. Every time he looks at a woman and isn’t instantly attracted to her, she will be cut today. That’s just the way it fucking is. 

The women have been here for weeks already, learning the rules, preparing this day for him. The first station of the cross: The Stranger’s Arrival in Town.

He can’t get Nessica’s playful cynicism out of his head: “The more exclusive and aloof you are, the more they will each convince themselves that you are meant for them. That’s why the Arrival is so important. The ceremony isn’t really about you. It’s about our collective relationship with the ideal man, the missing partner that we will never really find. Before b-words—excuse me, BACHELORETTES—start getting cut, all of them together must experience the Grecian frenzy of possible apotheosis. Imagine a rock concert where one lucky woman in the audience changes places with the rock star if she believes in herself hard enough. You are about to be fucked, killed, and then married to America. So, you know, just be yourself!”

The ceremony proceeds along a rigorous and traditional schedule. There are presentations for each of the fifty states, and then smaller presentations for some of the countries that have sent representatives as part of soft power initiatives: Saudi, Cambodia, Brazil, Scotland. There is a coordinated dance routine featuring all of the returning contestants from other seasons, here to try their luck again.

Rose City is an engineering problem composed of redundancies, like cross-coupled vacuum tubes on a first-generation Atanasoff-Berry computer. The city needs many different kinds of women to function, so there are hundreds of people doing the same vital jobs: bakers, construction workers, medical professionals, lawyers, public health officials, delivery drivers, therapists, postal workers, teachers, sanitation workers, stevedores, cops, admins, scientists, performers, artists, sex workers, restaurant workers, retail workers, grocers, influencers, electricians, plumbers, musicians, dancers, life coaches, cat moms, dog moms, ferret moms, mothers of human beings. Food is mostly imported instead of homegrown, and the city is on the Nevada water and power grid, but other than that, they are all on their own. All part of the fun and fantasy!

Women won’t learn that they are part of the first round of cuts until tonight when they get automated phone calls in their identical one-room Rose City apartments. Everyone else will get a text message of a single rose emoji, the first of many. The women eliminated by the cruel computer-metrics will get onto one-way self-driving party buses out of town, leaving the city without saying goodbye, unable to return for at least another year. Most of them will apply to be on the show again just as soon as they possibly can.


“Now what?” asks Vitus, laughing with something like terror. The Arrival has been draining. His only human company in the beat-up two door Chevy is a grizzled salt-and-pepper PA who is driving him by hand to his brutalist concrete mansion where he will live for the season.

“Now everybody goes to work. The cameras follow the stories. There’s the election, first off. You’ll go on a date with the new mayor. None of this is about you, you know. You are just like….the fuckin’ statue of liberty. Off in the distance. A symbol of higher purpose. Hooboy, get ready! There’s always a couple hundred women who have the bright idea of surprising you at home the first night. You oughtta just cut any of ‘em that try it, in my opinion. It’s low class.  Send every single one back to their dumb little lives, if you want to get any sleep. It sends a good message. Otherwise me and the boys’re gonna be spending every night out there with a varmint rifle walkin’ the  ‘lectric fence.”

“What if I don’t feel like cutting anybody else tonight?”

The PA grins.

“You know why they call me Doc, right?”

“I have never met you before, sir.”

The PA reaches into his camera bag and retrieves a twisted-up baggie full of pills. 

“Kaltkor,” he says. “A heavy drug, son. It'll put your conscience right to sleep. You’ll cut ‘em with glee. Or better yet, you’ll feel absolutely nothing. You’ll want to use it sparingly. But I’ve never seen anybody make it through a season without it.”

 Vitus has taken Kaltkor before, obviously. He slips the baggie into his pants. It just makes sense. Sparingly.


“And how are you going to manage THAT?” asks Nessica, bemused, when he tells her he is going to get through the process with his dignity intact.

“I’m gonna keep you damn production people from finding out what scares me or what makes me ashamed,” he says. “If you can’t figure out what surprises me, you won’t be able to torture me.”

“We've been making a comprehensive biometric dossier on you for years,” she says. “We've got cameras on you twenty-four hours a day. Robots are reading the pain in your eyes and the twist in your lips and telling us how to precisely prevent or engineer your breaking point, depending on what we need to make the season work. Batch, any time you need your dick sucked, I’m here for you. But don’t talk to me about dignity.”

“I’m not going to fall for any cheap tricks,” he says. “I’m not going to fall in love with any silly women who remind me of my mom or who have small town family values that tap into some hidden desire to be neutered by The Land. This whole city is a woman. The city is my girlfriend and we both like cruelty and variety.”

He drains his Cabernet and puts his hand over his heart.

“I will see the face of the universal woman in Rose City’s gyno-swollen buildings. I’ll see her flowing locks in the twisting streets. I’ll see her breasts in the shifting Nevada sand dunes. You can’t panic me into the tunnel down to the kill box. I’m dating the whole town at once. It’s the system I love.”

“You’ll see her cock-hungry asshole in the town septic plant,” says Nessica. “God, what are you on, dude?”


He pops a few Kaltkor, probably too many. Production is telling him that he isn’t sending enough women home each day. Maybe he overdoes it with the propsychotic. He feels blank inside and out. His dick is hard, though. Always a perplexing, problematic side-effect with too many competing solutions.

On his date with the newly-elected mayor (a two-hour prize for her in exchange for what will be a rather thankless and dubious job—the mayors of Rose City are always social media lightning rods for ambient political grievance), they take a tour of Amalgamated Drama—known more commonly as Dramarama—the Rose City merch factory where ten thousand contestants toil for a few hours each day making t-shirts, caps, lingerie, and posters, using archaic assembly line technology that robots would do anywhere else. This is Rose City’s largest employer. If you don’t have any other specialty or cute gimmick or trade, you go to work for Dramarama. Because all of the items are hand-made by actual contestants living and working on the show, Rose City is able to charge a premium to the viewers at home, offsetting some of the production costs.

While touring the factory, he sends fifteen women home immediately after seeing the way they sweat. This is the influence of the Kaltkor: he can’t continue his journey with any women who aren’t beautiful when they suffer. He organizes an impromptu kickball tournament and then sends home most of the losing team. He likes some of them well enough. One woman actually begs him to stay, polishing his boots with her long blonde hair and her tears. He lets her stay for an extra twenty minutes before changing his mind (“How would it look to the other girls who actually TRIED during that kickball tournament, McKenna?”). His goal is to eject at least five hundred women today. The factory helps. A lot of women flinch when he walks by, which bugs the crap out of him, or else they are unable to hide a secret grimace of resentment at his mere presence. What the fuck is that about? They don’t want to be here? He taps them on the shoulder and whispers in their ear: “Goodbye, honeybunch, you’re donezo.” The look of shock on their faces is soothing to him. It’s the first thing he’s ever said to most of them.

He keeps the ones who smile at him radiantly despite whatever humiliating work they are doing: cutting pants, feeding paper into giant industrial printers, hand-painting coffee mugs with some of the catchphrases that are already starting to turn up on the feed even though the first weeks of the season haven’t even aired yet. The mayor clings to his arm, telling him about her life as a political strategist in Alabama. He is barely listening.

“Hey guess what,” he says to her eventually. “Sending all these women home is turning me on. I want to fuck you right here on the floor of this dirty factory. How do you feel about that?”

A drone swoops in for a tight shot. He bats it away. It reels and then rights itself, still hovering but avoiding the range of his hand.

“Me?” she says. “Um, well, the thing is, I'm a Christian.”

“We’re all ‘A Christian’ here,” he says. “Look: feel me. My dick is like a chainmail fist right now.”

He grabs her hand tenderly and pulls her toward him. Her breath catches and she stares at his mouth. He slips her hand down into his pants.

“You see?” he says. “I need to cut women from this factory floor in order to find my wife, but how can I think like this?”

“What if we went into a closet or something?” she whispers. 

“No, it has to be right here,” he says. “It’s honest. Everyone needs to see. You’re the mayor now. People need to know they can trust you. They need to know that you’ll do what needs doing, no matter how humiliating. You’ll do it all out in the open, not abusing your power. Full transparency.”

The other women are now staring at the two of them. The machines whir all around them: printing, assembling, soldering, stamping. Women are frowning at them, holding Rose City t-shirts and totes in their manicured hands. Silent. Waiting. Drones film every square inch of the room.

She nods very slightly. 

“Yes,” she says. “Yes, I consent.”

“Louder,” he demands. “For the public record!”

“I CONSENT, I said! Jesus.”

He kisses her mouth and then her throat, his hands finding the lapels of her pantsuit and then ripping open the seams. She looks around as he moves down her body. She trembles but clings.

“Make a pile,” he roars. “Make a pile of Rose City shirts.”

The women scurry to make a place for them on the factory floor, piling up merch to make a nest: hats, duffels, modal t-shirts, cotton rompers. He gets her pants down and then maneuvers her onto the pile. She puts her hands over her eyes, smiling at the women who gather around. The women make a crowd, watching, biting their lower lips, holding hands in jealous solidarity.

The Kaltkor has made him hard enough that his balls throb. His tight hard sack sucks up snug to his prostate. His cock grazes the light hair of his happy trail, daubing his abs with pre-cum. He gets her started and then she masturbates him vigorously, while also frantically rubbing her own clit in a dexterous display that anticipates her alacrity at juggling the various demands of competing factions as Rose City’s chief executive. She is very wet when he enters her. Some cold dark place in his mind tells him he has chosen exactly right: what politician isn’t also an exhibitionist?

“You like this?” he asks her, flipping her over and holding her up by her crossed arms, twisting them up to the nape of her neck.

“Yes,” she gasps. “Gosh yes!”


“Holy cow, holy cow, holy cow, holy cow,” she screams as he roots her, twisting sideways with each thrust to sandpaper her exposed internal nerves with his engorged external ones. She digs in her knees and puts her hands on her hips so she can push back against him with maximum force, slapping back against his thighs with an athlete's rage.

“Slap her ass!” one of the women yells. The others giggle nervously.

“Who said that?” he asks, searching the crowd, still pumping. One shy lady raises her hand, wincing.

He gives her a thumb’s up. He rocks the mayor’s ass like he is shaking out a sticky Ramen spice packet, eyes locked on the shy lady who shrinks further and further into the crowd.

It doesn’t take long before he comes. As he spurts inside the mayor, he holds her up by her neck, feeling her racing pulse slow down as they breathe together. 

“Clap,” shouts one of the PAs as they uncouple, pointing to the drones recording. “Come on, ladies, you have to clap for your Bachelor. Clap, ladies! Support your man!”

Some of the ladies do indeed clap for him as he stands up and puts his pants back on. The mayor lays in the pile of merch for awhile as the drones record. She gathers the merch over her like leaves, looking very pretty. This shoot will blow up on the feed later. When he is done putting his clothes back on, he points to the three most enthusiastic women who are stamping and cheering and calling his name.

“You, you, and you,” he says. “And the one who said 'slap her ass.' You can stay. The rest of you—I’m sorry, you can go ahead and pack your bags. We have reached the end of our journey together.”

The mayor smiles at him. A sad and wounded wanting-hurting smile.

“Tomorrow you will be blonde,” says Vitus de la Fest to the mayor. “Send me a picture.”

She could always say no. But there is a target on her back now. She is the first to fuck him. Who would defend her? Maybe he is right. Maybe she SHOULD be blonde!


He reads the Rose City Scene on his way to a production meeting. The Scene is Rose City’s daily print newspaper. There are a few typos, but it is lucid. The top story is a report on how his friends and family are doing back in Philadelphia with quotes wishing him the best and anecdotes about his childhood. The story under that is a call for women to audition for the monthly talent show, which will take place at Rose City First Baptist.

He can’t read the article without smiling. Last night, a few women from Rose City First Baptist put on their Sunday best and brought him a tray of lemon bars to try and get him to come to their church. “But I’m Catholic!” he protested. They all wobbled out of there at 4AM, leaning on each other, hiding their faces from the camera drones, smeared with his spit and semen. He did promise to go to church on Sunday in the end, but only in order to extract moments of greater brutality. He can’t wait to sit in the front row of their little clapboard chapel and listen to them sing to him.

Below the fold, there is an article about an actual crime that has occurred. A poisoning, allegedly. The poisoned woman was a lady with whom he had a ten-minute flirty conversation about a line of pie-flavored rums that she wanted to develop. He gave her advice. Told her to call him. She was rushed to the hospital after her roommate found her unconscious in their shared apartment bathroom. 

“Hmmmm,” says Vitus to the driver. “I’m going to do something dramatic.”

“Oh yeah, Batch?”

“Take me to the hospital and have some classic flowers and a classic drugstore teddy bear waiting there. This feels like a narrative brewing.”

“That lady that got poisoned?” says the driver. “I say it was the roommate.”

The hospital is basically empty. In a city full of 60,000 healthy women aged 21-40, there aren’t many emergencies. There are twenty or thirty nurses just standing around bored. A doctor in a short leather skirt is showing how she can juggle specimen jars. They are all shocked to see him come in. They lose their fucking shit, surrounding him, cooing, laughing, playing up little rivalries.

“It’s quiet in here,” he says.

“Are those for me?” says the doctor on rotation, adjusting her glasses.

“Ha, no, I’m sorry,” he laughs charmingly. “These are for Maya W. Where is she?”

“Oh, she’s FINE,” says one of the nurses, rolling her eyes. “Honestly, she’s perfectly okay. It’s all a bit much.”

“She must be terrified,” he says.

The nurses show him to the patient. Maya W. is surrounded by ten cops—all sitting in chairs—who are drinking coffee and watching a Rose City basketball game on the single TV channel (The Process vs. The Right Reasons). The woman in the bed doesn’t look very sick, but she has an IV in her arm and there is a kidney-shaped tray on her chest to catch any emergency puke.

“She’s got a strong pulse,” says the doctor breathily in his ear. “Could be poisoning. Could be something she ate. Could be an allergy. A lot of these women here have never been away from home for so long. This is like college for them.”

Maya W. wipes tears away when she realizes that the flowers and teddy are for her.

“We think someone put detergent in her milk,” says one of the cops for the camera, taking off her cop hat and letting her long blonde hair fall loosely over her shoulders. He realizes that 80% of the women in the room are now peroxide blonde. News travels fast in Rose City. 

“What if we don’t catch ‘em and you marry a murderer?” the cop asks America.


“They told me AI would never replace vintners and sommeliers,” he says in the commercial about his wine analytics company, a commercial that will run before every episode of the show as part of his contract. “But they were wrong.”

“Is AI better at engineering varietals in order to create award-winning wine?” he says. “In fact, there is no doubt. When we finally told the world the truth about DeVine Systems, it was too late: we were already number one.”

When he closes his eyes at night in his room-sized heart-shaped bed, he still sees the grids of women. They flowed into him for months, day in, day out—hypnotizing him. Coalescing into one universal virago throbbing in his limbic system—the conjured, manifest anima of Rose City herself. Is AI better at selecting women in order to create award-winning love? In fact, there is no doubt. 

“What people want to see is a cad given utter freedom and control over what feels like every woman in the world, and then they want to see this asshole broken by unfakable, overwhelming infatuation,” says Nessica. “We didn’t used to be able to promise this. But the computer wins every time now. Are you ready to live happily ever after? You’re going to fight the process and you’re going to lose. But we want you to fight! You can be as terrible as you want! It won’t matter.”


He takes ten of the nurses and cops out for lunch at one of the three sit-down restaurants on Main Street, a Cracker Barrel with roses intertwined in the logo, rose-branded like everything else in town.

Vitus takes the corner booth. The women pack in around him, chatting and flirting and trying to catch his attention. They play the Cracker Barrel peg game. One of them solves it instantly. The women accuse her of having done it before. Never, she protests. Many of them do seem to have never been inside a Cracker Barrel in their lives. This is absolutely shocking to others.

When the waitress comes to take his order, he drops his menu and actually stands up, causing all of the women in the booths beside him to stop talking and stare. 

It is Shenan Hammer. The woman that stopped his heart from the grids. He knows her! Doesn’t he?

“Hey, it’s you,” he says instead of saying everything he is suddenly feeling.

“Hey, it’s me,” she says with lazy grace. “Look who it is: the man of the year.” She has a thick, chewy drawl that doesn’t seem to correspond to her fine features. She takes a stub of pencil from behind her ear and looks around at all the suddenly-silent cops and nurses. 

“Uh, who wants to start?” she asks to the table. But Vitus looks around at the women surrounding him and he feels a flash of fury.

“Get out,” he says to them. “All of you! Our journey is over.”

“Get out and go back to work, or what?” asks one of the nurses. 

“Get out and go back to your hometowns across America,” he says.

“You are breaking up with all of us?” asks one shocked cop, furrowing her brow. Her mouth hangs open halfway to her goddamn neck. She has a tiny bullet for a tongue stud. Handcuff earrings. Copglam.

“You can’t get rid of all of us yet,” says one of the nurses. “I mean, what will happen to the hospital?”

“Who will catch the poisoner?” asks one of the cops.

“I don’t care,” says Vitus. “We’ll train new nurses. We’ll switch the entire curriculum at the night school into nursing and criminal justice. Goodbye.”

The women are too shocked to fight. They file out to give interviews in the parking lot. One of them does throw a drink in his face. He hardly notices. He only has eyes for Shenan Hammer. She is smaller in person.  More delicate.

“Me too?” she asks in a small voice when they are all alone. “I mean, you didn’t say.”

“No,” he says, moving closer to her. “Not you. Listen, for real: don’t we know each other?  You know me, right?”

“I mean, I feel as if I do,” she says. “Me and everybody else here. From the TV.”

He shakes his head. He feels crazy.

“I know you are at work and all. Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. You are just trying to have a normal day.”

She smirks.

“We’re all at work here,” she says. She points to one of the drones. “Those guys who are going to have to edit this later are working. The producers are at work. All the women here are trying to get famous, which means they are workin’ harder than anybody. You are workin,’ too. You never even get one day off. But maybe everybody falls in love at work. Lord knows I get hit on enough at work. I think it’s easier to fall in love at work—you are around your own people and there isn’t much else to do. That’s what this show is all about. Turning hot people into coworkers and then smooshing ‘em together.”

“I am one of those assholes hitting on you at work, then, huh?”

“Not you,” she says. He can’t tell if she means it. “We are co-workers, like I said. Maybe I am hitting on you.”

“Can I kiss you?” he asks her. “I mean. I know that is crazy.”

He steps toward her. In the doorway to the Cracker Barrel he sees Nessica. She hardly ever leaves the Eagle’s Nest, which is what she calls her suite of offices and apartments at the top of Rose City’s only skyscraper. She is smiling. He moves Shenan sideways so he doesn’t have to look at Nessica when he looks into her eyes. 

“I think we know each other,” says Vitus. “Or else….like….computers have set us up so expertly that it feels like we know each other. I mean, I am only speaking for myself here. I can’t explain it. But I think I have feelings for you? How is that possible?”

She brightens up. 

“I am studying to be a computer programmer!” she says liltingly. “I mean, I have been. At the night school here. I mean, maybe the night school will only teach nursing and criminal justice now. If that’s the case, I think I’ll stay a waitress. Blech.”

“I love computers,” he says, making himself mean it. “LOVE them.”

He says it in a way that he hopes will convey a more specific meaning. He hopes the computers will hear him and will be pleased at his gratitude. He wants the computers on his side. He doesn’t care how creepy this all is. He doesn’t want the digital gods to take away what he has been given.

“We are two fierce grenache vines,” he says. “I want to invade you. Pollute you. Wrap you up and make weird new grapes.”

“Oh lord,” she says. “You are a bit ridiculous, aren’t you?”

“I want to fuck you on a pile of broken-hearted women who are afraid to tell me ‘no,’” he says to her in a subvocal rumble, hoping the cameras won’t pick it up. She blushes, moving closer. “There’s a whole city here full of women who aren’t you and who don’t matter. We have a whole year with them. I signed a contract, so they’ll all get to have their shot, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it interesting. I think this will be much more fun with a real co-worker. An equal partner. Us against them. What’s the worst thing you ever wanted to do to a customer who didn’t tip?”

She searches his eyes, processing. She is shocked and excited and can't tell if he is fucking with her. Finally she seems to make a decision.

“Well,” she says, smiling. "The worst thing?"

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(c) Miracle Jones 2021