Cast iron hinges groaned in protest as Derek opened the door of the secluded country house and gestured for Kristy to precede him out to the porch. He adjusted his sunglasses and gazed at the surrounding fields, dappled with patches of melting snow under an unblemished cerulean sky. The kind that only winter can provide. Beautiful job as always, Dakota.
“Derek, this place is enormous. I can’t imagine what it’s costing you to rent it.”
“Would you stop worrying about money? It’s the holidays. Besides, I’d pay almost anything to get away from our crazy families for a few days.”
“True that. Christmas dinner was awkward as hell.” Kristy zipped up her coat and slipped on her gloves. “Did it get colder out here since we arrived?” The stinging chill of the occasional breeze foretold an approaching snow squall, but Derek knew it wouldn’t arrive until after midnight. At least, that was the plan. “So, what did you want to show me?”
Derek stepped off the porch and nodded toward the tree line at the edge of the property. “It’s a surprise. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“You’re not taking me to some dark corner of the woods to kill me, are you?”
Derek smirked. “I can think of far more fun things to do with you in the dark, hot stuff.”
Kristy leapt from the porch and into his arms. “Promises, promises.”
The entire mountain range was ablaze—or so it appeared as the sun dipped low in the western sky, bathing snow-capped peaks in a deep saffron glow. Derek cast a furtive glance at Kristy, her face radiant, eyes glistening.
“This is stunning,” she whispered, as if anything louder would shatter the perfect moment.
“My thoughts exactly.” Derek shoved a hand into the pocket of his coat. “You know, after we opened all of our Christmas presents yesterday, I realized there was one that I forgot to give you.”
As Kristy turned toward him, Derek lowered himself to one knee and opened the small white box to reveal an engagement ring. “Young bachelor seeks beautiful maiden with whom to share a lifetime of romantic sunsets. Any takers?”
“Oh my God!” Kristy covered her gaping mouth for a moment before wiping her eyes. “As long as we can go someplace warm for our honeymoon.”
“I was thinking tropical.”
Kristy yanked off her glove and extended her left hand. “Deal.”
Derek slipped the ring onto her finger and kissed the back of her hand. “I need to stand up. The ground is freezing.”
Kristy glanced down at the dark stain covering his knee. “And wet.”
Derek chuckled. “Yeah, I didn’t think that part through. I was too nervous about popping the ques— ”
She pulled him close and kissed him until he was nearly out of breath. “As if I would’ve said no.”
“Well, that would have made our dinner reservation awkward. Let’s get back to the house before it gets dark. Apparently, I need to change before we go out.”
Kristy held up her hand as she started down the trail. “This diamond is huge. I can’t imagine what you paid for it.”
Derek was about to reply when the snow atop one of the distant peaks swirled and shifted. That never happened before. At first, it appeared to be the beginning of an avalanche—until several meters of the mountaintop flickered in and out of existence before solidifying once more.
Derek turned to Kristy. “Uh, no. Just taking one last look.”
Hand in hand, they headed back through the woods. Derek cast a final glance over his shoulder. Don’t ruin this on me, Dakota.
At the Summit Steakhouse an hour later, the hostess seated them at a window table toward the back corner beside an elegant white Christmas tree illuminated by a string of blue lights. At each table, red and green candles in hurricane glasses complemented the dim ambient lighting. The rustic stained wood interior was reminiscent of a luxurious log home complete with crackling stone fireplace. From the ceiling speakers, Bing Crosby crooned “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
“This is cozy,” Kristy said. “Our own private corner. Very romantic.” She glanced up from the menu to peer through the window, but there was little to see beyond the exterior lights of the restaurant. “And the scenery is breathtaking.”
Derek laughed. Situated atop the smallest of the mountains, the Summit was renowned for its unobstructed and breathtaking view of the entire valley—during the day, of course. “We’ll come back for lunch later in the week. Trust me, it’s a sight to behold, and you’ll be able to say, ‘I can see my house from here’ because the place we’re renting is,” he pointed toward the bottom corner of the window, “just down there to the right.”
“I look forward to it.” Kristy returned to the menu. “Since you know this place, what do you recommend?”
“Well, the last time I—” As Derek scanned the appetizer page, the text vanished in a downward wipe. It was immediately replaced with a message.
Mr. Marcus, we apologize for the technical difficulty earlier at the lake. A severe ice storm has moved into the area and disrupted the power grid in our section of town. We appreciate your patience as we switch to backup power. We will do our best to minimize any further anomalies. Thank you and Merry Christmas. —Management
“Derek, you okay?”
He gazed at her over the top of his menu. “Uh, yeah. Sorry. The menu seems to have changed a bit since the last time I was here, but the Skillet Chicken Monterey is amazing.”
“Good evening, folks.”
Derek and Kristy glanced up at the waitress as she placed two glasses of water on the table. “My name is—”
“Dakota!” Derek blurted. “What are you doing here?”
“I work here, Mr. Marcus. You know that.”
“Uh, yeah, right, of course. I just, uh, didn’t expect you to be here tonight. Don’t you normally go home over Christmas?”
“Not since my parents died. I’m on my own for the holidays, so might as well earn some money.”
Once Dakota had taken their drink orders and was out of earshot, Kristy leaned forward. “What was that all about?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were genuinely flustered when the cute blonde waitress showed up. Something I should know?”
Derek slumped back in his chair and waved away her insinuation. “No. It’s nothing like that. I only know her because I was a regular customer when I lived out this way. I was just surprised to see her still working here after all these years.”
No sooner did he finish speaking than his gaze was drawn to a pulsing light over Kristy’s shoulder. Across the restaurant, the front wall faded and rematerialized twice before it vanished, leaving in its place a black and green grid pattern from ceiling to floor.
“I love how easy it is to get you going.” Kristy pushed her chair back. “So which way to the restrooms?”
“Uh, restrooms?” Derek’s voice cracked as he shot forward in his seat.
“Yeah, I assume they have those here.”
The wood-paneled wall reappeared behind her. Dakota scurried by and gave him a thumbs up. Derek cleared his throat. “First right past the fireplace.”
“Thanks.” Kristy stood. “Oh, and don’t go running off with Dakota while I’m gone.”
“Stop it.” Derek rolled his eyes while Judy Garland started in with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
A moment later, Dakota returned with their drinks. “Well, that was awkward. Good recovery, though, that line about going home for Christmas.”
“Dakota, what happened to the usual waitress?”
“I altered your program. I thought it wise to step in and address these tech problems with you personally.”
“Yeah, I read the note from management in my menu. Look, I don’t want Kristy to know this is all virtual reality. Can you do anything for me?”
“The last thing we want to do is ruin your Christmas vacation, Mr. Marcus, but we just lost main power and had to switch to generator. The VR system is now running on UPS. The techs want to shut it down gracefully before—”
“Thirty minutes at most.”
Derek sighed. “Then give us thirty minutes, please.”
“I’ll let the techs know. Of course, you’ll be refunded the full cost of this session.”
Derek shifted his gaze to Kristy as she approached the table. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
He had downed his second beer before their food arrived.
Kristy draped her napkin over her lap. “Take it easy there, cowboy. Don’t start pounding them down on an empty stomach.”
She frowned. “What’s wrong? Having second thoughts?”
“What? No, not at all. Like I said before, I was just nervous leading up to the proposal.” He cupped his hand over hers. “But now I can relax knowing we’ll be together.”
Kristy laced her fingers between his. “Forever.”
The rumble of Derek’s stomach sent them both giggling. “Sorry.”
“Well, you know the old saying about the way to a man’s—” Kristy jumped at a flash of green light outside the window. “Did you see that?”
Damn it, Dakota. You said thirty minutes! Derek shrugged. “I’m sure it’s just a glitch with their holiday lights.”
“No, I caught it out of the corner of my eye.” She leaned close to the window. “It was like a huge grid.”
When it happened again, Kristy spun in her seat and looked at the other patrons, all of whom were calmly eating or conversing, oblivious to the spectacle. “How could they not have seen that, and where’s the waitstaff?”
“Kristy, relax. It’s probably nothing.”
In unison, ceiling and floor abruptly vanished. The walls soon followed along with every table except their own. Kristy gasped as the interior of the restaurant dissolved, leaving the couple sitting in silence, surrounded by a black and green grid.
“Probably nothing? Derek, what the hell’s happening? Where are we?”
“In a holochamber.” Derek slumped back in his seat and tossed his fork on the table. “I’m sorry, Kristy. None of it was real. Not the country house, not the mountains, not the lake. This is all virtual reality.”
Kristy held up her left hand. “What about this ring? Is this fake, too?”
“No.” Derek shook his head. “It wasn’t fake. I loved you so much.” He reached for her hand. “I always will.”
“Why are you speak—” Kristy’s form undulated before momentarily flickering out. She returned as nothing more than a distorted, pixelated mass. “— past tense?”
“Because you’re not real either, not anymore. This day did happen four years ago, but now it’s just a digitized memory.”
With that, the illusion that had once been Derek’s fiancée disappeared. He slumped over the table, cradling his head in his hands.
Across the holochamber, the doors parted to admit a tense and solemn Dakota, now donning the standard formfitting uniform of her employer, Virtually Real. “Mr. Marcus, please accept our apologies for the technical difficulties during your session. Two of our UPS batteries failed, forcing us to power down sooner than expected. You’re more than welcome to return later this week and restart your Christmas simulation free of charge.”
“It’s all right.” Derek rubbed his eyes and stared at the empty seat across from him. “In fact, it’s probably for the best. There are no do-overs in real life and after four years, this façade has… lost its appeal.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Marcus. Please allow me to—”
“Derek. Call me Derek. We’ve known each other long enough. After all, you helped me recreate one of the happiest days of my life. You know how she died. You know my weakness… you know my pain.”
Dakota nibbled on her lower lip before drawing in a sharp breath. “Management has also authorized me to issue you five VR sessions at twenty-five percent off with no date restrictions or expiration. You may use them anytime.”
Derek was silent as he ran a finger along the edge of a table that would only remain solid until he moved away from it. “You know, every time I come here, I get so excited to see her again, even for just a few hours. Yet, I always leave here feeling like shit. I don’t know why I keep torturing myself like this.”
No sooner did he rise from his seat than it vanished along with the table. “Tell your management I appreciate the offers, Dakota, but I’m done hiding inside technology in a pathetic attempt to recreate a lost love at half off the regular price. No coupons will bring Kristy back. I’m sorry, I know I’m making this awkward. I won’t waste any more of your time. Thanks for your help, Dakota. You did a fantastic job.” Derek started toward the doors. “Oh, and Happy Holidays.”
“Derek, wait. What about a New Year’s Eve party?”
With a laugh, he shook his head. “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”
“No, I mean a real New Year’s Eve party with live human beings. At Jolene’s Pub in the Theatre District, Upper West Side. Some of my co-workers and I are going. You’re more than welcome to join us.”
Derek folded his arms. “I thought employees weren’t allowed to fraternize with the customers.”
“And I thought you weren’t coming back.” Dakota ambled closer. “Look, I’m not asking you on a date, especially after all you’ve been through, but you said that I know your pain. Well, when I told you I was alone for the holidays, I didn’t make that up. I work here every Christmas because I don’t have anyone to share it with. You think you’re pathetic for coming back here every year, but when I see you with a virtual rendition of your fiancée—one that I created—I envy you because that’s more than I have. So, you tell me who’s more pathetic.”
“I’m sorry, Dakota. I honestly didn’t know.”
She shrugged. “Never too late to make up for lost time. New year, new start, and no strings attached, I promise.”
“Thanks for the invite. I’ll think about it.” With that, Derek stepped through the doors into the corridor.
“I never knew the real Kristy,” Dakota called after him, “but I doubt she’d want to see you isolate yourself, especially this time of year.”
Derek stopped and lowered his head with a sigh. After a moment, he turned. “No strings attached.”
“You have my word, but keep in mind it’s a limited time offer, expires December 31st.”
“Then I guess I should act now while supplies last?” He smiled in spite of himself. “You were right about Kristy, but wrong about being pathetic.” With that, he sauntered off with a wave. “See you on the Upper West Side!”