On an ordinary day, the algorithm’s Monday-Friday settings had me awake dead on 7. The silent alarm, the already opened blinds welcoming the day in. There was no ‘waking up’ as such, or at least no memory of it; I was asleep and then I was awake. That day, my eyelids felt like they had weights attached to them, my head sunk too deep into the pillow. Thoughts tumbled, slow as dust, into my consciousness. What day was it? The blinds were down, the day elbowing through the spaces between slats. Sunlight sliced into pieces on the floor.
I reached my hand under the bed and searched for my phone, my hand gripping the steel headboard to stop myself from falling. 8.30. I should have been on the service bus that carried me from outside my door into work, my mood-regulating playlist preparing me for the day ahead.
“Blinds, open. Open…blinds, you idiot!” I said, swinging my legs onto the floor.
The blinds had a switch that opened them somewhere; I ran my hands over the slats, then over the smooth wall to the left of them. No switch.
“Forget it,” I said, making my way to the wardrobe. I didn’t even have time to shower or check if breakfast was there. My stomach gurgled. I imagined myself walking into the office, late, cutting through people’s productivity pods; their judgement, patches of stubble creeping through. How would I even get through the door? I usually walked in, one with the tide of employees.
When I stumbled in front of the wardrobe, everything was messed up, like a disturbed child had been playing in there all night. There were so many collapsing piles: jeans on top of t-shirts, jumpers mixed in with chinos, vests, shorts. No coherence. I stood back, shelves overflowing with hues and shades of grey, white and black, sometimes navy. Mute as a black and white photo. Usually, my day’s clothes were laid out ready for me on the platform in front of the wardrobe; a bespoke selection: jackets, trousers, t-shirt, shoes and belt; based on the day, weather, mood and optimised to cause minimal offence. How would I choose an appropriate outfit for day 2? Where to start? Even asking those questions was unoptimal, a waste of potentially productive time. Finally, I reached my hand out and grabbed items from the top of each pile closest to me: plain blue jeans and an empty white t-shirt.
Outside, the air was crisp as a backhand; still, yet unwelcoming. Confronted by the silent street, I slammed the front door behind me. I began walking, one foot in front of the other, the only thing I could do. The quiet propelling me forward. I searched my pockets, no headphones. I patted my t-shirt where my jacket should have been. “Fuck.” For what felt like the first time, I noticed how narrow the street was, the houses huddled together behind slim pavement. The trees that were planted to improve the air quality only made it more claustrophobic.
At least I had my phone. I typed the address of my workplace onto the maps app and waited... Nothing... I typed again. This time, the word ‘error’ appeared in an aggressive, oversized red font. So, I repeated. Four, five times. I couldn’t remember the name of the street my workplace was on. I wouldn’t recognise the road if I were walking down it. Just my work building right at the end, a perfect cube, 9 floors high, matte black glass absorbing the light, like a vast shadow. The only thing I knew was that it was approximately south, some distance from my home; the service bus got me to work in 45 minutes on a traffic-clear day.
I tried to unlock my phone again. This time, instead of searching, the screen went from black to white to ‘sorry’ in suspiciously tiny red letters, a wobbly line drawing of a seagull underneath. Its beak curved upwards slightly as if it were smiling.
“Dammit,” I mouthed into the chill air. I couldn’t call in, email, text. I pressed on the screen, soft at first, then harder until the black turned green, then white. Smashing my fingers into the seagull’s smug face.
Next, I tried my watch. Tapped it with my finger, then massaged it, round and round. Nothing. It remained, a black hole on my arm. I tried speaking to it, softly at first, coaxing it to work. Then, louder, “Find work, you absolute stupid piece of….”
Distracted by my malfunctioning devices, I drifted along, lost. Who knows how long I’d been going before I stopped; I’d wandered onto an old high street. The place was drained of colour, a grey crumbling smudge; the shop fronts had been hastily built on, shop on top of shop, the grey stretching higher, blotting out the sky to accommodate the swelling population. How lifeless it had become; the wide, car-free road that ran through it only made it feel emptier.
I remembered the town centre my mom and I would visit when I was a child. Flashes of people’s trousers, legs surrounding me, my mom picking up boxes of shopping from a supermarket car park. When I thought of it, I pictured vividly light blue socks with fat multi-coloured spots pulled up the shins of bare orange-streaked legs. My mom dragging me by the arm, telling me not to stare.
The unpersoned, caged shopfronts of the old high street stood cold and uninviting. Probably to deter people from using them. I pushed the code for a canned flat white into the keypad attached to the cage. A faint sound came out of it, like a cough. I typed the numbers into the keypad again, harder. Hit them with my fist. This time, nothing, not even a whisper.
“Come on, you idiot! I know you’re listening.”
“Who you calling an idiot?” A sandpaper voice said behind me. I turned to a man with a dense greying beard, the kind that you could hide food in. The kind I could never grow.
“Not talking to you mate, I haven’t had my coffee yet. Nothing’s working for me today. You go ahead, maybe you’ll have more luck.” I said with a fake laugh.
“Nothing ever works for me, man; you got a couple of pounds you can spare for a hot drink?” The homeless looking man said, brandishing a card reader.
I paused. Would he really spend my money on a hot drink? Was he even homeless? I looked down from his faded tracksuit bottoms to his footwear. They were decent, plain black leather walking boots, probably gifted; leather boots were hard to find. I hesitated, then held my phone against the screen of his card reader. The word ‘No’ flashed on the screen above the badly drawn seagull.
“Told you. Looks like there’s no coffee for anyone today.”
“Asshole,” he said, spitting thick grey phlegm on the floor as he shuffled away.
I turned, ready to ask him who he thought he was talking to. Instead, I inhaled, counted to five, exhaled; there was no way of knowing what diseases he carried.
The leaves of the trees whispered to each other. I shuddered and wrapped my arms around myself. Rubbed my hands up and down the raised flesh. Why had I picked a t-shirt? The word ‘cold’ flashed in my head like a warning.
“Please algorithm, what should I do now?”
Could it hear me anymore? In the past, it had anticipated my thoughts; it seemed to know me better than I knew myself. I stopped. Nobody around to ask, not that I would anyway. The clouds grew darker. I stared into a warehouse window as I passed. Rows of the same items of clothing hung neatly in colour order ready to be picked and sent off for delivery. The display seemed grotesque, empty objects with people shaped holes waiting to be filled. The claw of the picker hovering above them like God.
“Manny,” I said into my watch. It remained empty. “I want to speak to Manny. If anyone will know what’s going on, it’ll be him.”
The blank space on my arm mocked me, so I looked down at my feet. My trainers, stark naked white against the grey asphalt. I focused on them as I walked, lifting over and down, up over and down. My watch logged my step count every day, but for what? I stopped; flexed my toes. They were snug inside my socks, which were snug inside my trainers. To my left was a boarded-up old supermarket. How long had the place stood unfilled? The thought caught in my throat. The high street had wasted away over the last decade or so, slowly enough to go unnoticed. Shops that people walked into to buy things became a novelty, something parents spoke about in soft voices when they mentioned ‘the old days.’ The only places left were off-licenses and coffee shops.
I thought about the action of moving myself forward, the friction of each foot connecting to the ground; forces working in opposition. Like everyone else, I was used to being taken somewhere, A to B. I liked to know where I was going and when I could expect to get there. That day, I had no idea about anything other than the movement of my body. I lifted my leg higher and brought it down with more force. Enjoyed the satisfying slap of my feet against the solid pavement.
My walk became a march. I worked my muscles more, felt the pull, the stretch at the knee. I swung my arms, let them lift with the air, joints swivelling in sockets. Higher. Until they drew a line from the front to the back of my body.
For once, I didn’t care what I looked like. I covered more space, or so I calculated. The extra exertion, the larger the force, the more distance covered? That was the sort of thing I would have usually asked the algorithm. How many miles could I cover at maximum exertion?
My march quickened. I wanted to move faster; more. My heart beating; blood, heat, and oxygen pumping.
My arms and legs synchronised, fell into the rhythm of a jog. The wind grazed my face. I observed the jolt to my joints as each foot pounded the pavement. I experimented with smaller and then larger gaps between my feet. Soon I was running. My legs stretched wide, as if I were an athlete in a race. Had I ever run outside? I’d used treadmills, set to the optimal speed for my body weight; set simulations, mountains, beaches, and forest trails. I could go anywhere I wanted without leaving my house.
As I ran, I caught glimpses of my reflection in the dirty glass of the partly boarded-up shop windows. How ridiculous I looked, my unshaven face, running in my fresh jeans and t-shirt. I corrected my posture, bent my arms to right angles, swung them in front of my face in what I thought looked like the right technique. I took a side road, downhill, away from the eerie high street. The houses grew taller the further I ran down. They had oversized driveways with more than one car sat on them, waiting. The blinds were all drawn as if everyone was still in bed. I kept going, my chest getting tighter. The air scratched at my throat. I hocked and spat on the pavement, then turned to check if anybody had seen. On any ordinary day, that would have been a £50 fine. Still nobody.
Eventually, I approached an expanse of slightly overgrown grass. A mud flecked sign read Bleak Hill Park. I rested my arm on the cold grey gate and sucked in the air as much as my lungs would allow.
To my surprise, I was enjoying myself. The discomfort of the cold air on my arms fighting with the heat from my body. My heart, knocking on my chest, reminding me it was there. I pushed the gate open and walked away from the path, onto the grass. It cushioned my feet. After a few steps, the wet seeped into my trainers. Had it been raining? I hadn’t been paying attention.
I became acutely aware of my feet, now colder than the rest of my body; my socks beginning to dampen. It was unpleasant. I couldn’t remember feeling an unpleasant sensation before that day. Of course, I must have, when I was a child perhaps, wanting something, a game, and not receiving it, having to wait, watching all my friends talk about playing it, joining in and hoping they wouldn’t notice. Or being caught in the rain without protection, running for the old bus that used to take me to school. Those were memories I’d buried, forgotten until that day.
I kept moving, paying attention to the squelching sound, rolling the word unpleasant around my mouth, stretching it out. ‘Un-pl-ea-sant.’ The flick of the L, allowing the other letters to fall from my mouth. I thought about the meaning of unpleasant. Uncomfortable? Cold? Different? Unoptimal? Untemperate?
A jolt to my head shook me like thunder. A head of bleached curls turned in time with mine. Maybe she had been looking at her feet, too.
“Discomfort,” I said before I could catch up with myself.
She stood still, silent, the half-moons of her eyebrows raised; no words to soften the blow. Her large hazel (or were they green?) eyes scanned me from my wet trainers to the undone waves of my hair. Freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks. I resisted the urge to reach out and touch her face; it seemed so smooth, unbroken, like the sky on a perfect summer day.
On autopilot, my hand swept through my messy hair. I fought the urge to turn and run.
“Sorry, I....” I tried to think of something to redeem myself, something interesting. My hand started towards my hair again, but I stopped mid-way; bringing it into my front pocket instead.
Who was this person? I knew how to talk to people, to women; at least I thought I did. I’d been on dates, but in those situations, I knew what to expect; had picked my date based on shared interests and quirks, planned my questions well before arrival.
“Hi. I’m Ruth,” she said and smiled, still checking me out.
“I’m Reiss. Sorry I... I didn’t mean to bump into you, clearly not paying attention. Are you OK? I hope I didn’t hurt you?”
“I’m as much to blame as you are, huh? What brings you here on this beautiful day?” she said, glancing up at the rumbling sky.
My body relaxed; my shoulders lowered. She was so casual, effortless for such an unplanned meeting.
“Today’s been a weird one. I should be at work now, but my system messed up somehow—no alarm, my clothes weren’t ready, blinds not opened—all of it; so, I missed the service bus to work and without that, I couldn’t tell you where the place is. I tried my phone, watch, everything’s down, and there’s this weird seagull that keeps coming up. I didn’t even get to call in sick to work, but what would I have said, anyway? The algorithm only knows what’s going to happen tomorrow!”
“Weird, huh? So, I heard something’s up with the algorithm. It went down this morning, or parts of it did. For some people, or most people, something like that. Some group hacked the system... that’s what my flatmate said, anyway. Said it’s been a long time coming. So here we are! I’m the same. It’s strange, isn’t it? I never realised how much I relied on the thing. I thought I was in control of everything, you know? But now...today... I’m not so sure.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought about it like that.” I said, suddenly realising that I’d had nothing to drink all day. My tongue felt fat, too big for my mouth. I tried to forget about it; instead tried to offer something intelligent or philosophical to the conversation. “Hey, who needs control when you can have convenience?!” I said, my voice rising unnaturally towards the end of the sentence.
“Convenient control... Sounds about right. I don’t know... for the first time, I’m questioning things. Like, how did I not even know this park existed—right on my doorstep? And the quiet, I’ve never noticed it before... There’s supposed to be birds or squirrels or something, the world isn’t supposed to be this quiet! That’s what the algorithm plays when it wakes you up, all those animal sounds. Well, that’s what it plays me, anyway.”
“Yeah... conveniently controlling the masses.’ I glanced at my wet trainers and then up at the sky. ‘It’s nice, except for the weather. They could have chosen a better day to hack the algorithm.”
“So, how are you going to spend your first day of freedom?” She said, tucking her hair behind her ear. I couldn't help but look at her smooth cheek, which was now fully exposed and slightly flushed. A gold pyramid dangled from a thin gold chain threaded through her earlobe. I wanted to tease them out, slowly.
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead. More aimlessness, I’m guessing.”
“Same. Want someone to wander aimlessly with? I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have someone to navigate this bold new world with. Plus, the quiet is really freaking me out.”
Her face lit up, her skin warmed, glowing, as the sun fought through the clouds. I thought about going with her, walking through the park and beyond, to wherever the day took us. Getting my fingers caught in her curls, cupping her face in my palms.
“Actually, I think I’m going to...I should probably get back home; catch up on work ready for tomorrow.”
“Boring! I’m only messing, fair enough,” she shrugged. “It was nice to meet you, Reiss. Hope you don’t get too caught up in aimlessness and get all your work done.”
The way she said my name made it sound like someone else’s: the final S disappearing like smoke. For a second, I became more interesting, a person who did things on a whim, leading a beautiful girl further into the city. Perhaps it wasn’t too late; I pictured us walking, having a conversation about something deep, me saying something witty yet on the nose; her looking up at me with her vibrant eyes and laughing.
“Nice to meet you, too. See you around maybe.” I said, stepping backwards.
“Sure. Maybe the next time the algorithm’s down we can bump heads.” She said, half-turning to go.
“Until next time.” I said, watching the back of her head, the curve of her back. My eyes travelled down. Her rolled up jeans lifted as she walked away, purple spotted socks just showing. For a moment, I felt like I’d been there before.
I shook my head and jogged back through the gates of the park. My hands rubbed against the gooseflesh of my arms. Hopefully, by the time I retraced my steps back home, everything would be back to normal.
As I left the park, there was a flicker of something grey. I did a 180 and there was a mangy seagull stood on the park gate, swallowing something whole.