After a long ride of silence, Lori swiped a prepaid card to pay her fare and stepped out of the dingy cab that had brought her from the Port.
In front of her stood a Brutal beast of a building that stretched not only into the sky, but across the street to its kin as well. A thin layer of thick clouds littered the sky beyond it, dissolving large pockets of darkness in splotches across the street.
“A blind date in the future,” Lori said, looking around in residual disbelief. “Here goes nothing!”
She glanced again at the scribbled note clutched tightly in her hand and confirmed the address with the dingy, grey numbers above the front door: 19530 — the Residence Building, it was called. From down the street, a young woman in a pearly white track jumpsuit jogged with her dog, stopping only long enough to make sure the dog knew to turn — which it didn’t, at first — before entering the Residence Building. The door slid open automatically.
“This is it,” Lori mumbled, feeling a mixture of nervousness and anxiousness at the date ahead of her. So far, the neighborhood looked unbearably grim, and she secretly hoped Bendal’s loft would be a stark contrast.
A drone flying overhead caught Lori’s eye and she nearly slammed into the building’s doors when they did not open automatically when she approached. She stomped, trying to activate the weight sensors, and then tapped around aimlessly for a moment, looking around nervously to make sure no one was watching.
The handle opened the door just fine, and Lori walked into what looked like the blandest building she had ever set foot into: there was literally nothing on any of the dark beige walls, nor any furniture or decorations aside from a keypad to her left, and a single mailbox on next to it. On the other side of the room, a pair of steel elevator doors waited.
The room was completely silent save from Lori’s footsteps, softly echoing on the empty walls, as she walked a path towards the lift. As she approached it, the monotonous hum of a gigantic machine on the other side only got louder and eventually drowned out even her footsteps.
Assuming the unlabeled plastic panel next to the doors was some kind of touch-sensitive elevator call button, Lori tapped it. Almost immediately, she turned — startled and jumping — towards an unexpected noise behind her as the front door opened again. Through it, a midget of a man with a full beard walked in and made an immediate beeline towards the her.
The elevator came just moments later, stealing Lori’s attention back to the steel box opening up to eat her, and the midget called out, “Hold the door, please!”
Lori stepped in quickly, then hesitated before holding the door open.
“What floor?” she asked politely, mentally noting the irony that it was him actually closer to the buttons.
The man looked up at her with a look of annoyance on his face, and then returned his gaze to the middle of the grey wall opposite him as the steel door closed.
Rude, Lori thought, he can push his own damn button then. She awkwardly maneuvered herself so she could reach around the midget and press 25, and was surprised to see 33 already lit. Still rude.
After a moment of uneasy silence, the elevator’s whirring engine kicked back up, and the elevator jerked upward a floor, before stopping and jerking sideways the same distance.
“Oh!” Lori cried out, losing her balance and grasping desperately to the bars lining each wall of the lift. She caught her balance and looked back to see how her companion had fared, surprised to see him planted in the same place, albeit with one hand now on the railing beside him.
“What was that,” Lori started, but was cut off by the elevator whisking the couple upward again, as if nothing had happened. Did we just change elevator shafts?
The man ignored her again, and kept his stoic face turned towards his favorite excitingly blank wall.
When the elevator shifted to the side again, Lori was already gripping the steady bars with both hands. She whipped her head around to the midget again, who had still not moved. “Oh right,” she said, trying to explain away her obvious Tourist Status to him, implying she had just forgot that elevators in the future move along multiple axes.
* * *
The door chimed at floor 25, and Lori glanced nervously at the midget as she stepped through his piercing gaze while exiting. He continued to stare silently at the wall, completely still except for a brief jerk to the left when he could briefly not see it.
Outside of the elevator, a small, orange room about the size of a closet greeted Lori, and some kind of elevator music began to softly play as she stepped out and onto the tiled floor. Beneath the music, she heard the chime of a doorbell ring out on the other side of the only apartment door in the room.
Doubts of the blind date flew through Lori’s head, but she waited to reserve her judgment until she actually saw the man she’d matched so highly with online. Matches in the top fifth percentile could match anyone across time using the service, so she was infinitely interested in what a once-less-than-a-lifetime man would look like.
The door opened, and a man nearly seven feet tall answered with a smile on his face. He was dressed in a white button-up shirt with matching white slacks, and stood slumped with a white apartment wall peeking out from behind him.
“Lori?” he asked with a hint of excitement in his voice. “From TimeCupid?”
“The one and only,” Lori joked. “I take it you’re Bendal, then? From ‘65?”
“Absolutely,” he answered. “Come on in!”
“Okay,” Lori said, then tentatively did.
The sliver of white walls she’d peeked at behind Bendal expanded to reveal it had indeed been a representative sample of the room: the room was completely painted a bright white, but had just as much furniture and was as bland as the rest of the building.
Lori stopped in her tracks, seriously second-guessing this adventure.
In the middle of the room stood a tan couch that looked like it could have been made of plastic, facing the empty wall opposite Lori, which not only had no decorations or furniture on it, but was also completely devoid of windows.
Seeing her stopped, hesitant face, Bendal panicked with a look of confusion, then his eyes widened and his face straightened out and he exclaimed, “Oh, no! You need this!” and reached into a cabinet near the door to retrieve a pair of large rose-tinted sunglasses.
“Oh god,” he chuckled, “my apartment must look atrocious without a visor. I’m sorry, look through this.”
He extended the sunglasses and Lori nervously glanced back at the door for a moment before agreeing to try them on.
“Most people just use contacts,” he added, shrugging.
Even before she had them up to her face, she could see their tint turning the dusty hardwood floor into a rich, red mahogany that even looked freshly waxed. Lori no longer needed convincing, and she put the glasses on immediately, amazed at the transformation they had on the room.
The couch was now sandwiched between two beautifully intricate wooden end tables, each with a matching ornate lamp, and a beautiful green rug peeked out from in front of the couch. Even further, against the wall, stood a mind-blowingly large television screen, stretching literally from floor to ceiling and corner to corner that left no hint of a white wall behind it.
On each wall to either side of the television, densely-packed bookcases took up every inch of space, with beautiful hardbacks of every color sprinkled throughout the room as if the walls held two gigantic pieces of art. On the fourth wall, Lori turned around to see a hundred framed photographs fit themselves wherever they could fit on the wall, and Lori jumped when she noticed one was animated — and then noticed the rest were, too.
“Woah,” she said, turning back towards Bendal, who was now wearing a suit. Instinctively, she reached up and pulled the glasses down her nose and checked for her brain whether Bendal had actually changed clothes, and saw him standing in the plain, white room in his nice white clothes from earlier. Putting the glasses back on revealed the suit again, and this time he was holding flowers.
He smiled and extended them, saying, “It’s crazy, right? These are for you.”
Lori excitedly reached out, then withdrew her hand and shook her head, unsure of whether she was supposed to actually take them.
“Are they real?”
“Feel for yourself, Lori,” he said and extended them further. “Lilacs are your favorite, right?”
“They are,” she said, wrapping her fingers around their stems, letting a smile creep across her face. “They’re real?”
“They’re as real as you and me,” he assured, then waved a hand towards his humongous television and asked, “Are you still up for a movie?”
Their smiles spread together and they walked around the couch, Bendal leading the way. Coming around it, Lori accidentally bumped the ornate lamp onto the ground, where it shattered into a small pile of pieces flung haphazardly around the area.
There was a split second of silence before Lori erupted, “Oh no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bump it, I’m sorry!” She thought about adding on, “I can buy you another one!” but decided not to — the lamp looked incredibly expensive. Her eyes finally left its rubble and looked towards Bendal, who was still smiling and reached into his pocket.
“No worries,” he said, pulling out his phone and pointing it at the mess. “Come over here for a second, and watch this.”
Embarrassed, Lori did as she was told without questioning, and watched as Bendal swiped at his phone and tapped twice before putting it back in his pocket.
The room was palpably silent, and Lori looked back up at Bendal.
“Is something supposed to happen?”
“Here it comes,” he responded almost immediately, pointing. “Look!”
Lori watched the pieces of the lamp slowly fading to black, When they were finally a pitch of black that seemed unreal, they jumped into the air and combined with the other pieces in motion, fully forming the vase which then flew back up the way it had fallen and righted itself on the side table next to Lori, who jumped back.
“It’s a plugin called time reversal,” Bendal explained. “I got it last week. Watch this.”
He picked up the vase and threw it over Lori’s head into the bookshelf behind her, where it shattered and rained pieces down into a much wider range across the floor. Another swipe and two taps on his phone and the reassembled vase jumped back into the bookshelf before flying back over Lori’s head again and landing at its source. As it reached the side table, Bendal pretended to alley-oop it into place.
Only slightly terrified at the aspect of throwing glass furniture over her head in the first five minutes of meeting someone, Lori glanced at the door again and smiled through gritted teeth.
“It’s kind of like insurance from your time,” he explained, acutely aware at the fear he’d instilled. “Except instead of just getting cash back when something of yours breaks, you actually get the thing back. It’s pretty handy. Makes for some fun with eggs.”
Lori let a smile slip, picturing herself let loose eggs all over the apartment.
“So you’re not some kind of time wizard,” Lori joked nervously. “Or some kind of other kind of wizard?”
“No, no,” Bendal laughed. “Do you know Arthur Clark?”
“Yeah,” Bendal said, continuing to lead on to the couch. “He wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, and I think that probably applies here for you. But I do have a robe and wizard hat in the back if that’d make you feel more at ease?”
“No,” Lori said sheepishly. “You’re fine in your suit. Though now I feel a little underdressed.”
“You look great,” Bendal cooed. “Ready for the movie?”
They sat down and the television screen began to glow slightly, fading in from a void of blackness to a deep purple haze.
“I should warn you, though,” Bendal turned, facing Lori. “Movies in my time might be a little more intense than movies in yours.”
“Uh,” Lori shrugged, confused. “Is this some kind of horror movie?”
“No,” he said, “but it is somewhat of a thriller. Most movies are, though. Just letting you know before we start what to expect; if it’s too intense, remember it’s just a movie, okay?”
Lori took a deep breath and said, “Okay.”
Bendal tapped the couch armrest and the room lights dimmed, the purple haze permeated the television frame and spread onto the surrounding walls, occluding the bookshelves and stretching out opaquely over the hardwood floor beneath them.
“Remember,” Bendal repeated. “It’s magic.”
When the lights were almost completely dark, the boom of an air conditioning unit kicking on sounded like thunder in the distance, and Lori jumped. Moments later, the lights flickered on as if a bolt of lightning had struck right behind them in the room, illuminating an endless forest of sparse trees surrounding them.
Another round of thunder coincided with the room darkening back to purple haze again, but shortly thereafter another flash of lightning lit up the forest again, and something moved in the shrubs to the left of the couch.
“Here,” Bendal said, extending a flashlight to Lori from one hand, holding a second one in the other. “I’ve got a spare, you take it. What was that?”
Confused, Lori immediately flipped her flashlight on, and jumped when the cast beam revealed only more trees instead of the bookshelves she knew lined the walls of the room she knew she was in just moments prior.
“Are,” she stuttered, “are those trees real?”
“They’re as real as you and me,” he reassured her, grinning. “Don’t worry.”
Another burst of thunder beckoned a few droplets of rain that started falling softly, and Lori shrieked when she felt one fall on her cheek.
“What, what, what, was that?” she exclaimed, leaping up from the couch into a pile of leaves that audibly crunched under her. “It can’t be raining!”
More raindrops fell.
“It’s not,” he said, standing and tentatively reaching for her hand, which was flailing excitedly. “It’s not raining; what you feel is just part of the movie. It’s not even wet. Feel it.”
Lori looked around the forest, uneasy at not being able to tell where the apartment’s front door was anymore, and then rubbed the goosebumps on her forearm.
“Then what did I feel?” As she felt another raindrop, she swatted aimlessly at the air, and then at where it had struck before it had a chance to evaporate — but it was dry. “There was another one!”
“It’s just air,” Bendal explained. “A tiny bit of air shot at you from the vents in the ceiling to feel like raindrops for the movie. It feels like it’s raining, but you don’t get wet. I can turn it off if it makes you feel uncomfortable.”
It’s just air, Lori mentally repeated, fortifying herself. “No, I can handle it. I just didn’t want to get wet, is all.” She sat back down, and Bendal did too. When their eyes returned to the forest, the shrub rustled again and Lori flicked her flashlight towards it to see better.
“Are you ready to get into the movie?” Bendal asked, taking her hand in his. “You’ll want to stand for this. Don’t worry.”
She swallowed, nodded, and stood. The shrub rustled again, and both flashlights remained steady on it.
“Take a step towards it,” he suggested. “Check it out.”
The girl glanced back at him and took a step towards the shrub in the room — or in the forest, or wherever they were — and snapped a twig under her shoes, jumping immediately backward at both the sound and feeling it actually crack beneath her feet.
“It’s just a stick,” he said, waving her on. “I’ll go with you.”
They stepped forward again, and the shrub shook again. Bendal stopped and held Lori in place, then whispered, “Don’t move.”
A tiny, brown rabbit jumped out from the shrubs, paused with deer-in-the-headlights eyes when it saw the couple out on a date in the woods, and stood frozen in place.
Time stood still, and Lori held her breath for as long as she could, before slowly exhaling into the chilled air, creating a large cloud of fog in the air.
The fog drifted towards the rabbit, which then immediately darted off in the opposite direction.
“We have to catch it!” Bendal shouted, and they both leapt forward in pursuit of the rabbit, finding the trees quickly scrolling past them while they remained stationary in the room.
The rabbit seemed to leap just out of reach over and over, always keeping its lead over its pursuers. It darted through shrubs, around trees, and under fallen debris to lead Lori and Bendal in every direction.
Eventually the rabbit stopped on the far end of a clearing and looked back at the two, who had stopped stopped on the opposite edge of the trees in an effort to keep the rabbit from darting off again. It twitched its whiskers and glanced at the trees behind it, and Lori leapt out to catch it while it wasn’t looking, only to find herself abruptly falling down an opening hole in the ground beneath her.
The hole seemed endless, and eventually the initial paralyzing shock of falling subsided and Lori twisted in the air to look around, and found Bendal descending just five or six feet above her.
“What’s happening?” she cried, still trying to regain her balance as blurry walls whizzed by her face. “We’re not supposed to be falling, are we?”
“Don’t worry,” Bendal shouted through cupped hands, completely unperturbed by the rocky walls flying by, “this is the part where she falls into Wonderland!”