Lilly Anne was from Florida. She moved to Toronto because she heard they had jobs and clean water. She was a writer—well, sort of. More like what the old folks would have called a user experience writer. She had a contract job at Solace Health and wrote product copy for an app that monitored and corrected irregular heartbeats. She deliberated over language like <start>, <learn more>, <download>, <love>, <buy>.
She wanted to stay in Toronto. The weather was mild and there weren’t any water restrictions. She could take hot showers for as long as she wanted, as many times a day as she wanted. Florida was nothing but malaria now.
Ember had the hots for Lilly Anne. He was also from the South—Atlanta, Georgia—but his family had moved up north before the weather went bad. He worked full time for Solace Health and entered the building with a red-colored badge. He didn’t care that Lilly Anne’s badge was purple. He didn’t care that she was only a contractor: in fact, he was relieved.
“I have a lopsided heart,” he told her in their private meeting room. “That’s why this product is so important to me. On a personal level.” He ran his fingers through his shaggy blond hair and leaned close.
Lilly Anne noticed his long black eyelashes. The upward flicker of his lips, the hint of a roguish smile.
“Do you like Toronto?” he asked her.
“Do you want to stay at Solace Health?”
“Yes, very much,” she said.
“You need a red badge. A red badge with your photo on it. That way you’ll be
hard to get rid of. Like me.”
He smelled like old-fashioned chewing gum. The kind they used to make with menthol.
“Work with me. I can give you a red badge,” he breathed into her mouth. “I’ll make your purple badge turn red.”
A couple of weeks in, Ember decided it would be a nice feature if the app included clips of Lilly Anne’s voice. Her voice was unremarkable, he said, which was why it was perfect for the product. Soothing and benign. A nice touch for users with heart problems.
“Your heart is beating fast,” she said in the recording room. The words came out pleasant and professional.
Ember licked his lips.
“Your heart is beating so fast.” Low and seductive. Ember tickled her.
“Stop, stop, stop!” High and breathless.
The product launched. Solace Health thanked Lilly Anne for her time, her words, and her voice. Then they told her they didn’t have the budget to renew her contract, but rest assured, her good work would make a difference and improve thousands of lives.
Ember never saw her again. He briefly wondered whether she had gone home to Florida and if she had, he hoped she’d be okay.
When summer came around, Solace Health held their quarterly corporate offsite event at the boardwalk. Old time-y rides like roller coasters and a pirate ship that swung out over the pier and flipped all the way upside down. He’d heard stories about rides like this as a child, remembered the names of inaccessible places like Six Flags and Busch Gardens, the way his friends described a chimera named Space Mountain. He was always the kid with the heart problem.
He glanced at the wearable device on his wrist. He had the app now.
Lilly Anne’s voice read his blood pressure.
“Your heart is healthy,” said the app. Its tone was pleasant and utterly benign.
When the pirate ship flipped over, Ember felt exuberance. Sunlight glinted on Lake Ontario and happiness rolled over his body. His co-workers screamed in their harnesses and he laughed. He could control his heartbeat.
At last, the ride rocked to a slow stop. Safety harnesses snapped open and his giddy coworkers filed out of the ship. He felt light headed and tapped his wearable device. Waited for Lilly Anne’s voice to read his vitals and tell him he was fine.
Hot breath inside his rib cage. His harness did not release. A new group of people began to file into the ride while he was squeezed in tighter. He flailed his arms and tried to call out for help. His device flickered on. Lilly Anne’s voice in his ears, competing against happy boardwalk sounds. His heart was beating too fast. Pressure on his ribcage. Squeezing. Stop! Stop! Stop! Lilly Anne’s voice high and breathless.
LAUREN C. JOHNSON attributes her upbringing in America’s weirdest state—Florida—to her interest in ecological and surreal fiction. She has an MFA in creative writing from American University and has been published in the Boston Globe, Earth Island Journal, the Oracle Fine Arts Review, Winter Wolf Press, and others. She lives in San Francisco and works as a copywriter in Silicon Valley. While this recent career shift is a strange and unexpected turn of events in Lauren’s professional life, it’s yielded inspiration for lots of stories, like this one.