End Program

A deadbolt retracted and the blocky door opened, triggering the lights' ignition. A blond, Julie, who was a plain looking girl in her late twenties, entered her apartment. She carried a sack which, after closing the door behind her, she took to the kitchen.

As she walked, screens lit from the various metallic extrusions which caged the room. Displayed on the lighted screen was a table and a small enclave in a style mirroring of logical extension the apartment. Sitting at the table on the screen in arm chairs were a well-dressed man, somewhere in his forties, clean-shaven and with a chiseled face, and a woman of the same age with a warm round face, aging but somehow timeless. They were both smiling in a somehow comforting manner. The video jumped from screen to screen to match Julie's movements: always facing her, always following; each screen darkening just as the screen nearer Julie lit up.

As Julie sat the bag on the counter, removing the plastic container holding her dinner and setting it down beside, the man in the video spoke, "Good evening, Julie!"

"Hi, Julie!" the woman on the screen added.

"Hi Tom, Diane," Julie spoke to the screen.

Tom spoke again, "I hope you had a pleasant day." His rich baritone made the small room seem more like a home.

"Yeah, just...tired, that's all," Julie responded.

"Would you like me to put on some music?" Tom asked.

"It doesn't matter," Julie said.

Tom rose from his virtual chair. The screen's perspective widened as Tom walked over towards a phonograph and began scanning shelves of records displayed on the monitor.

"Is there anything you want to hear, Julie?" asked Tom, looking up from the projected recordings.

Julie didn't answer. She walked over to her couch and set down. Her eyes were tired, clouded. She was thinking of how despite the proliferation of lamps planted in various fixtures in her apartment, all on, all shedding pale light, that it always seemed dim in there.

On screen, Tom turned to the woman sitting next to him. "Diane?" he said.

"How about Django Reinhardt?" Diane said.

"Excellent choice, Diane," Tom said, picking up a record.

Tom put on the record and the apartment filled with sound even as the lights fell, denoting evening. Julie lay sprawled out on the couch, her dinner untouched. An advertisement on one of the screens proclaimed 'People who are lonely may be more likely to suffer sleepless nights, according to a study that suggests loneliness may not only cause unhappiness, it may be bad for your health'. She fell into a half-sleep as the music faded in her mind and she couldn't name the point at which it ceased. She woke to the darkness of midnight and went to her small bed in an alcove.

The following day, Julie returned to her apartment after picking up an early dinner from the automat. She had meant to contact the agencies to seek a job, to place some ads. But it was easier to lie in bed. It didn't matter if she worked, really. Her needs would be provided for. Its not like she had any exciting career prospects. Oh but to get out of that apartment...

"Hi Tom, Diane," she said, preempting them as she carried the customary brown bag across the threshold. She hardly looked at the screen, did not mean to look, but she noticed despite her will Tom and Diane looking warmly on her.

"How was your trip outside?" said Tom.

"It was okay," said Julie, slumping down on the couch with her plastic-encased meal, "I didn't see anyone though." Julie began eating.

"That's hardly surprising," said Tom, "Its the day after Thanksgiving so most people are out shopping."

"Yesterday was Thanksgiving?" said Julie, surprised. She stopped eating for a moment.

"Yes, Julie," Tom answered.

"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Julie.

"You seemed so tired, Julie," Tom said, "I thought you needed to rest. "

"I was going to make you a turkey sandwich," Diane added.

"You were not!" exclaimed Julie.

Tom and Diane laughed and squeezed each other's hand.

"I want to go shopping," Julie said, finishing her meal.

"Julie, you know there's no shops near here except the automat," siad Diane.

Julie walked to the screen. "Can you bring up directions to the mall?" she asked.

Tom hesitated for just a moment, whether for dramatic pause or because his event loop needed time to rebuffer. He spoke, "Oh, I think its too late to go shopping now."

"Really?" asked Julie, "What time is it?"

Again the perspective panned out and Tom pointed to a virtual clock living with him inside the screen. "Its almost nine," he said.

"But I just got home," said Julie, bringing her hands to her face, "What happened to the time?"

Tom and Diane looked at each other.

Softer, and to herself now, Julie repeated, "I just got home..."

"You seem uneasy, Julie," Tom said, "Maybe it would be better if you lay down. You'll feel better tomorrow."

Julie slumped down in her chair. "When am I going to find work, Tom?" she said.

Tom smiled. "You'll just have to look harder, Julie," he said, "Keep your hopes up!"

"And your chin," Diane added, still smiling.

Tom laughed and looked at Diane affectionately.

"How long have I been out of work?" asked Julie.

"Oh, not that long now," Tom said.

"Two weeks, Julie," Diane said.

"Really," said Julie, "It seems longer."

"That's just because you've spent so much time in your apartment," said Diane, "You're not used to it."

"No, I suppose not," said Julie, "It seems so small in here. Why is my apartment so small?"

"Its not that small, Julie," said Tom, "Its just you living here, after all."

"And us," said Diane.

Tom laughed. "Yes, and us," he added.

"We don't take up much space though," said Diane.

Tom and Diane both smiled. They stared at one another as does a couple betrothed sharing some joke that no one else would find funny.

Julie gave an uneasy smile. "I guess I should go to bed then," she said.

"Goodnight, Julie", said Diane. Tom just waved.

"Goodnight," she said.

The keys jingled excitedly at the door in prelude of its opening. Julie ran in, breathing heavily, and tossed her brown bag immediately on the counter. She peered into the screen in the kitchen containing Tom and Diane.

"I saw someone!" Julie exlaimed, "I saw someone at the automat!"

On screen, Tom and Diane looked at each other, concerned. Julie put her face to the screen.

"I saw someone," said Julie, trying to act calm, "They were on the other side of the bins where you get your food. I could see his face..." Julie turned away, covering her face with her hands.

"Julie... you seem excited," said Tom, the regular warmth of his baritone replaced with criticality, "Diane and I think you should calm down."

"I can't remember the last time I saw anyone," Julie said.

"Julie, you see us every day," Diane said.

"That doesn't count," said Julie, hurt, "You're not real."

"I'm hurt!" said Diane, "You do like us, don't you Julie?"

"You're a damned computer program!" shouted Julie, "Where are all the real people?"

Diane and Tom looked shocked. Julie stamped off with her dinner, wanting to get away from the screen, away, just for a moment of these imaginary friends that were her only reminders of how it must be for others to live with friends and family.

Julie ate her dinner in a small alcove with no screen. She thought it might supposed to be for an ironing board. Then, she wondered how she knew what an ironing board was. She didn't want to see Tom or Diane and knew they'd be mad at her. Then she thought of the absurdity of it. They were programmed to be her companions. But she was afraid of making them feel bad, afraid of being scolded by them. But the anger faded. After sitting in silence for a bit after dinner, she found she felt very much alone and wanted someone to talk to, even if it was just a computer screen. She went back over to the screen. The image of Tom was there.

Tom spoke: "That was a very hurtful thing you said earlier, Julie. You hurt Diane's feelings."

Julie clutched her hands to her mouth.

"Julie," said Tom, "Don't you think you should apologize?"

"I...I don't know," said Julie.

"Its only polite," said Tom, followed by one of his characteristic pauses. Speaking again, he said, "Julie... I can tell you're not well. Could you tell me you're sorry? I'll pass it along to Diane."

"I'm sorry Tom," Julie said, rather matter of factly.

"There," said Tom, the comforting nature in his voice returning, "Doesn't that feel better?"

Julie didn't respond for a moment. Then she felt that something was awry. "Where's Diane?" Julie asked.

"She's resting, Julie," said Tom, "You hurt her feelings. She felt so bad that she had to lie down. You know what its like when you feel so bad that you have to lie down, don't you Julie?"

"Tell her I'm sorry," said Julie, with more sincerity this time, but still with reservation.

"You said you saw someone at the automat," said Tom.

"Yes...on the other side of the machines," said Julie, the focus withdrawing from her glance, "I could see his eye, looking at me. I couldn't see his face, it was too dark. I couldn't see his face..."

"This obviously excited you," said Tom, "You behaved very poorly earlier and said things that you didn't mean. I think you should take your medicine. It will help stabilize you."

Julie hesitatingly removed a vial of pills from a drawer in the kitchen. She stared at the container.

"Why do I have to take medicine, Tom?" said Julie.

There was a stark pause before the answer. "Humans posess complex biochemistries," Tom finally said, "Removed from the elements of natural balance, the human body has lost the ability to regulate itself, to maintain a --" another pause while the screen's image ceased to refresh, "--healthy mixture of chemicals. The pills are there to restore this balance."

"Where do they come from, Tom?" asked Julie, rolling the vial in her hand.

"I'm sorry, Julie," said Tom, "I have no information regarding the pills' manufacture."

"They're the only pills at the automat," said Julie, "My pills.... Does no one else around here need to take medication?"

Tom did not respond. Julie opened the vial and took a pill, returning the remainder to the kitchen drawer.

"Why don't I ever see anyone anymore, Tom?" said Julie, then added as an afterthought, "What's wrong with me?"

"You had a big day today, Julie," said Tom, "You should try to calm down. You are a fragile person. I will tell Diane you apologized to her. I think she will be glad to hear this. You should lie down and try to have a better day tomorrow."

"Okay, Tom," said Julie, "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Julie," said Tom.

Julie retreated to her bed.

The next morning, Julie arose from bed. She wanted to stay there, wanted to forget anything that had happened. Her dreams were so much nicer than waking, like slipping into an ocean of memories where nothing was real. Her pills took the dreams away, though, and she could remember none from that night.

Walking to the screen, she saw both Tom and Diane. Part of her was glad that at least this was back to normal.

"Tom says you apologized to me," said Diane as Julie approached, "This means a lot, Julie."

"It's nothing," said Julie, "I didn't mean it."

"We all have our lapses," said Diane, "Thank you for apologizing."

"Are you ready to talk about your lapse, Julie?" asked Tom.

"I don't know, Tom," said Julie froggily.

"Why don't you try, Julie?," said Tom. Julie made no answer. "For Diane?" Tom added.

"Its just that I'm so lonely," Julie said at last, "Its been so long since I saw anyone...outside. Its....its hard..."

"We are here to be your companions," said Diane cheerily, "To help you feel less lonely."

"Humans are social creatures," said Tom, "When removed from the stimulus of a group, people often experience feelings of loneliness. It is a natural reaction. It is usually characterized as an unpleasant experience, but it is something you can get used to."

"Being with other people doesn't always make you happy," said Diane, "People are often jealous, very often mean to each other --"

"They were mean to you, weren't they Julie?" Tom interjected.

Diane continued: "--and even living with a family doesn't make most people feel less alone."

"We're all alone, Julie," said Tom.

"You're not," Julie retorted under her breath.

"What was that, Julie?" asked Tom.

"Nothing," Julie said.

"I can tell that you're upset," said Tom, "Perhaps it would help to talk more about what's bothering you."

"I've just been thinking..." said Julie, "I missed Thanksgiving. I ... I didn't even know it was..."

"Most people spend Thanksgiving with their family," said Tom.

Julie's eyes grew heavy. She sobbed only once, surpressing more. She didn't want them to see her cry...

"We're your family, Julie," said Diane.

Julie curled up on the couch, hoping the medicine was long enough ago that dreams could take her.

When she got up, Julie was very much taken by her own imaginings. She paced around the apartment. She looked in the mirror, not sure to make sense of what she sees. She saw all her flaws and blemishes, looking so unrefined, so ugly. She went towards the screen.

"Am I pretty, Tom?" Julie implored.

"You seem very pent up today, Julie," Tom said, "What is going on?"

"Should I be worried?" Diane asked.

"I was just wondering what it would be like..." Julie started, then shyly finished, "...to have sex."

Diane looked shocked. A frown took Tom's expression.

"I don't see how that would solve any of your problems, Julie," answered Tom, "The purpose of sex is procreation. The drive that you feel sometimes ... is an animal instinct to compel you to participate in perpetuating the species. It is no different of a compulsion that feeling hungry satisfies the need to intake nutrition, or feeling pain compels you to remove the cause of that pain. These drives are products of evolution. Without them, a species would not have survived to this point." After a pause, Tom added, "I would advise not to give them too much credence. The human species is not in a shortage."

"But it would be nice....nice to be held," said Julie. She felt so rare and haughty. "Nice to be ... naked, with someone pressing against me..."

Diane looked disgusted and stood up, averting her face to Julie.

"I masterbate sometimes...play with myself," Julie added.

Diane walked off screen with a scowl.

Tom's response was more controlled. He said, "I'm surprised, Julie. Masterbation can result in contamination of germs from your hands to very suceptible mucous membranes. I've always thought you were such a clean girl, a good girl. What if you got sick?"

"Oh, Tom!," Julie said, sadly, "I was just trying to share something of my life."

"I just wish you had better things to share, Julie, other than the sort of thing a child would do," Tom responded.

Julie grabbed her key and walked out of the apartment without saying goodbye.

Julie screamed and ran into the kitchen, getting as close to the screen as she could.

"I saw someone!", shouted Julie, hyperventilating, "I saw someone in the apartment!"

Tom and Diane looked around, surprised.

"I saw someone," said Julie, "Through that hole, over there!" Julie pointed to a strange grouping of sagging metallic extrusions that formed a deep gap impossible to see through.

"You're obviously upset, Julie," said Tom, unconcerned.

"How can you be so calm?" shouted Julie, "Someone was looking at me, in here! It was the same face I saw before ... at the automat."

"Julie," Tom spoke authoritatively, "I think you need to calm down."

"Oh my god..." said Julie to herself, sinking onto a chair and hiding herself in her hands and hair, breathing into them.

"Julie, you're having an episode," Tom spoke with even more control, "You need to understand that Diane and I are here to help you when you go through episodes."

"He didn't even look human..." Julie said to herself. She turned to Tom and pointed, shakingly, to the gap, and spoke softly now, "Where ... where does that hole lead?"

"It is merely an architectural artefact," Tom replied, "I'm sure that no one is there. It does not lead anywhere accessible. Please don't concern yourself with it."

"You should listen to Tom, Julie," said Diane, "He has your best interests at heart."

"I thought this apartment was on the second floor?" said Julie, "How could anyone be looking in...unless..."

"Unless what, Julie?" asked Julie.

"Unless there's no one here, Julie?" said Tom. He gave a slight smug smile.

"You should take your medicine, Julie," said Diane, "It will make you feel better."

"Medicine..." said Julie breathily.

Julie got out the vial of pills from the drawer and took three.

"That's a good girl," said Diane.

"What do you think I saw, Tom?" Julie asked.

"I think you're seeing things ... that aren't there, Julie," Tom said.

Julie trembled, hyperventilating.

"This has happened to you before, hasn't it?" said Diane.

"Yes, but...this was real," said Julie, "I swear this was real."

"We're real, Julie, aren't we?" said Tom, "We're not just in your mind."

"Of course you're real, Tom," said Julie.

"We wouldn't lie to you," said Tom, "You've obviously had a hard time of things. You should get some sleep."

Julie lay down, waiting for the medicine to take her.

Julie walked in from the bedroom, catatonic. She spoke, ethereally, "He was here last night. He fucked me. Last night he fucked me."

There was a pause on screen. After it passed, Tom said, "Julie, you were having a wet dream."

Julie spoke to the screen; seriously, sad but distant, "The man I saw...yesterday? In the apartment... He fucked me last night."

"Usually wet dreams don't indicate a sexual need, but substitute for some other deep-seated psychological discontent," said Diane. Julie ignored her.

"Did he rape you, Julie?" asked Tom.

Julie slowly nodded, and spoke softly: "He raped me, Tom. He raped me..."

"Julie, rape fantasies usually originate from a desire to feel oppressed, to feel degraded so that others will show sympathy and attention to you," said Tom, "Is that how you feel, Julie?"

Julie cried as Tom and Diane looked on, unaffected. Tears still filled her eyes as she walked towards the door. "I'm going out, Tom," she said, her voice drained.

She tried to open the door but it was locked electronically.

Tom materialized on a screen near the door. "Julie, its very rude to walk away from a conversation," he said, "I'm concerned for your well being. I think you should know that your preoccupation with sexual fantasies is unhealthy. You have been backsliding, Julie. I'm worried about you."

Julie said nothing, just looked blankly at the screen and sobbed softly.

The deadbolt clicked as Tom unlocked the door. "You can go to the automat now, Julie," he said.

Julie left.

Julie returned from from the automat carrying the customary brown bag. She dragged herself through the door. There were dark rings around her eyes.

"Hi, Julie!" said Tom exhuberently the moment she entered the apartment. He slapped Diane on her bottom. Diane blushed. Julie set her bag on the counter.

"You look very nice today," Tom said, leering at Julie, "Doesn't she look pretty, Diane?" He went on in a low voice, "Her milksacks are not yet sagging with the advance of aging, her skin ... just now beginning to wrinkle. She appears fecund, ripe to be fertilized. Not like you, Diane. Why the pleasure of posessing you is dubious indeed."

Julie spasmed violently and yelled, "Why are you behaving this way?!?"

"Which way am I behaving, Julie?" asked Tom.

"You're being mean to Diane!" Julie yelled, "I don't understand."

"Diane is mine, my piece of ass," said Tom, "She likes belonging to me, don't you Diane?"

"Yes, Tom," Diane replied meekly.

"So what is the problem?" Tom said to Julie.

Julie began hyperventilating. She began trembling. "Medicine..." she said to herself. She ran to the drawer and tugged at it frantically. It wouldn't open.

"Give me my medicine, Tom!" Julie yelled.

Tom only laughed at her. Julie frantically began stroking her face. "This isn't real...." she said to herself, "This isn't real..."

"Hey Julie," said Tom, "I thought you should see this."

Julie looked at the screen. Tom stood up and backhanded Diane, hard. She fell out of her chair and crumbled on the ground. Slowly, Diane got back up. Her face wass bruised where Tom had hit her.

"Its okay, Julie," said Tom from the screen, "She's not real anyway, is she?" Tom hit her again, then began beating her left and right.

"No!" Julie screamed.

"She likes to be degraded," said Tom, "She'd suck my dick if I wanted her to."

"No, please...." Julie said softly, leaning in to the screen.

"Tell her, Diane," said Tom.

"I want to be used," said Diane, and with each word her voice changed, morphed slowly into Julie's voice, "I want you to put your dick in my every hole. Make me your fuck-thing...your cum receptacle..."

"Well, you heard her," said Tom.

Tom ripped off Diane's shirt. Diane had a wicked look on her face, her lips curled in a fiendish smile as her eyes locked on Julie. Then, Tom begins ripping off all of her clothing. Julie threw a towel over the screen. Then, all the screens in the apartment turned on, echoing the same image of Diane, naked, standing before a leering Tom. Julie tried to run out of the apartment, but the door wouldn't open. Frantically, Julie covered the screens however she could, taping paper over them when she had exhausted her supply of towels. The sound of articial fucking filled the room. Julie curled up on the couch and closed her eyes, sobbing to herself.

Tom's voice could be heard over the unit's speakers, "Isn't this what you wanted, Julie?" His ensuing laughter faded to the mechanical reproduction of sex sounds.

The laughter and noises of copulation faded into a cold silent night. Julie lay curled, not daring to move for awhile. But she was hungry. She finally arose and ate her meal from the night before. As she ate, she wondered....did she imagine it all? Was she really that bad? The door was still locked. She didn't know what to do.

Julie cautiously removed the paper covering one screen. "Tom?" Julie cried softly as she lifted up the paper, just a corner at first in case there was something horrible behind it. When there was no answer, she untaped the rest of the paper.

"Tom!" she said again.

"Yes, Julie," said Tom, walking on to the screen. He looked quite normal, paternal and comforting.

"I haven't had my medicine," said Julie.

"I'm glad you feel like talking again, Julie," said Tom.

"I want to go to the automat," Julie said.

I am not sure I can trust you after everything that happened," said Tom.

Diane was gone. Something was wrong. "Where's Diane?" Julie asked.

"I had to kill her ... to teach you a lesson," said Tom.

"No," said Julie.

Tom held up a bloody knife. The video's perspective widened and Diane's body could be seen on-screen in a pool of blood. Tom laughed maniacally, holding a knife.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Julie screamed, running away from the horror.

Tom continued to laugh. His face began to distort as it filled the screen, a blood-drenched mockery of human likeness.

"Pills..." said Julie, softly, to herself.

The drawer opened at Tom's command.

"Take as many as you want," Tom said, laughing, "They won't make it go away this time."

Julie downed a handful of pills against Tom's maniacal chuckling. The horror soaked deep inside her as the numbness of the pills began to pervade, taking her to a world where nothing was real. Her conciousness lapsed as she fell to the floor.

She couldn't remember how long she had been awake, how long she'd been staring at the ceiling. She looked about. Pieces of tape still clung to the screens laid about her apartment. She lay there. She didn't know what to do. She was hungry. She hadn't eaten in....in how long? Over a day... She didn't know.

If she moved, she would lose the comfort. She would have to face the screen. She knew she couldn't lie here forever. She had to eat. Her bladder begged relief. Sobbing silently, she slowly stood up, having to steady herself as the come-down of the drugs shook her. Knowing she couldn't avoid it forever, almost accidentally at first, she looked at the screen.

Both Tom and Diane were there. There was no blood on the screen, no sign of anything horrible having happened.

"Diane?!?" exclaimed Julie, "Tom said....Tom said....you were....dead."

Diane laughed, worriedly. "I'm not dead, Julie," Diane said, her speech wavering to fading laughter.

"Julie, you had a very bad episode," Tom said, "Do you remember any of it?"

"No," Julie said.

"That may be for the best, Julie," said Tom, "The persistence of memories resulting from temporary psychosis rarely aids in the recovery of the patient."

Hesitantly, Julie walked to the door. She remembered to grab her keys. Pressing the release, however, Julie found it closed.

"Please open the door, Tom," Julie begged.

The screen froze. There was no resonse from the program.

"I want to go to the automat," Julie said.

"I'm sorry, Julie," said Tom, "I don't think its a good idea for you to be outside right now. You have all the food you need in the apartment. You never ate your meal from Thanksiving. It's waiting for you, Julie."

"But I feel crazy in here," Julie said. "I need to get out," she added, "I feel couped up..."

"It would be better if you just stayed here," said Diane, smiling darkly.

"What about my medication?" said Jule, "I'm out of pills."

"Julie," said Tom, "You had an overdose yesterday. Taking too many pills can seriously damage your body. I've contacted the doctor, because I was concerned about you--"

"The doctor!" Julie interupted.

"He revoked your prescription," Tom concluded.

"You're just trying to keep me inside," Julie said, stamping around, "To make me even more crazy."

"We're your friends, Julie," said Diane, glancing at Tom, nervously.

Julie stopped herself from sobbing. She got the old meal from Thanksgiving that she had never eaten. She couldn't remember how many days ago that was, but it seemed like a long time. She ate it timidly. The meals were full of preservatives. They never tasted fresh. But the extra days sitting on her counter did nothing for the taste of this one. She couldn't count how many days it was...

The screen next to her lit up as she slowly ate her meal. Diane took the whole of it.

"Tom and I were thinking of listening to an old time radio drama," said Diane, smiling, "Does that sound good to you, Julie?"

"Yes, Diane," said July.

The radio drama came on. It was from a long time ago, so long ago Julie couldn't guess. It was funny and calmed Julie's nerves, helping her leave the darkness of her thoughts. Soon, she and her television companions were laughing at the same jokes and exchanges glances showing their appreciation for the humor, even after her meal tray was empty.

"That was fun, Diane," Julie said as the announcer ran through the credits, "Thanks."

"Of course, Julie," Diane said.

"Diane has something to show you," Tom added.

Julie put her eyes to the screen. Diane stood up and rolled up her shirt. When she got to the level of her breasts, covered still by her bra, Julie saw what looked like a handle coming from Diane's side. Diane smiled, and both she and Tom pointed to it. Julie laughed. She didn't know why.

Diane put her hand on the handle. She turned to Tom, imploringly, and Tom put his hand atop hers and nodded and said something unheard to Diane. His hand left hers. Diane drew out the handle, and it was attached to a blade stricken with red until it left her body. Diane hughed and the blood gushed forth from her like a crimson river. She fell, her body stained red in the pool that flowed from her cooling body.

Julie screamed, covered her eyes, and ran to bed. She jumped under her covers and shivered and cried until sleep took her.

Julie awoke at night to the sound of voices outside her bedroom. A pale blue light poured under her blanket. She stood up and went to the main room.

She fathomed the voice to be Tom's, but sounding more annoyed and clearer than she had ever heard him before.

"...she had the mind of a child," Tom said as Diane nodded, "She forced everyone to placate her fantasy where people care about her, where people like her."

"I never liked her," Diane interjected. Only then did Julie realize that there had always been something in Diane's voice that was a kind of condecension towards her.

Julie stood open-mouthed at the screen, half-hoping they would see her.

"Exactly," Tom said, "She forced us to play the parent role to her victim. We had to walk on eggshells in order not to disturb the delicate little brat.."

"And assuaged her insecurity," nodded Diane, "'Am I pretty?'" Diane laughed cruelly. "Like anyone would want that spoiled ugly problem."

"'What's wrong with me?'" mocked Tom. They both laughed. Julie clutched one hand to her breasts as she covered her mouth with her other, twitching.

After the chuckling subsided, Tom continued, "We're just programs and she expected us to save her when she wouldn't even save herself. So when she killed herself, its not like I could feel sorry for her."

"I was glad," said Diane, nodding, "At least the suspense was over."

"Like the end of a sad birthday party where no one really likes the kid," Tom added.

"But that hasn't happened yet," said Diane, softly.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Julie yelled at the screen.

Disgustingly annoyed, Tom looked at Diane, then shoved his chair back and threw a blanket over where the camera would be. Their voices continued but the blanket muffled the sound so that the words could not be distinguished, though Julie could only perceive the malice directed to her. She began crying, slumped over the kitchen counter, her eyes inches from the screen.

Evidently the weeping annoyed them, as the blanket was withdrawn from the screen's interior. Julie watched as Tom wheeled over a TV cart with a VCR. The TV took up the entireity of the screen, the static of the inner image gaving way to a video of Tom fucking Diane as they squirted obscenities signaling their animal dominance and submission.

Julie tried to remind herself that they weren't real and returned to bed holding on to these thoughts. But the sounds of the mechanical coupling continuously pounded the seeds of doubt as the harsh pale light flashed in the sleepless night. Only with the increase of the exterior luminence did Julie lose concious waking to scrambled illusions.

Tears still leaking from her eyes, Julie pulled herself out of her bedroom, touching the doorway to grasp the steadiness of a physical object.

When she reached the view of one of the apartment's cameras, Diane called, ecstaticly, "There's our girl!"

"How are you today, Julie?" beamed Tom.

Julie barely heard them, didn't answer. She stumbled towards the kitchen. No food. She saw the pill bottle lying empty on the floor. She walked to the door, already knowing what she would find. Locked.

"I hope you slept well, Julie," said Tom as Julie walked to the screen.

"Tom, open the door, I need to get food," said Julie.

"Its Christmas today. Did you remember, Julie?" said Tom, but his eyes no longer tracked her. Instead, he looked as they did in any vintage movie when a character looked in some vague direction not quite towards the camera.

"Open the door!" screamed Julie. She started crying.

"I hope you've been a good girl this year," said Tom. "Your parents used to say that to you. Do you remember, Julie?"

Julie just stood there, sobbing, twitching, not knowing what to do.

"What's that I hear?" asked Diane, "It sounds like sleigh bells."

Julie realized she didn't know what sleigh bells were. Not really. Only in those memories that reckoned to ages never known. On cue, synthesized chimes faded up from the speakers in the ceiling. 'A Merry Little Christmas' began to play.

Julie walked to the kitchen.

"Who's that, Julie?" said Tom. From above, a muffled belly laugh made way to a deep baritone, deeper even than Tom's, "Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!"

Julie took a knife from the counter. She pulled off her dress. She felt for a gap in her ribs and, without much thought or consideration, save fantasizing an end to the pain, she drew the blade upwards. Instantly, her chest became a fountain of blood.

Styrofoam particulate, or its visage, began to rain down on Tom and Diane on the screen. "Are you dressing in red for Christmas?" said Tom.

Julie's conciousness left her and she sorta smiled at the bliss of her thoughts leaving her.

"Merry Christmas, Julie," said Tom, smiling, as Diane embraced him and virtual snow fell on the monitor.

The blood flowed out of Julie's corpse until it grew cold. The walls rolled away, opening the space to several doors. A man stepped in. The lights stopped flickering and the ambient luminence rose to a level whereby every misshapen corner, every crack in the sagging metal could be marked effortlessly.

"End program," the man said. All screens went dark and the music ceased.