The gondola glided between buildings, and that same song filtered in right as we slipped under the third arched bridge. It was coming from an upper balcony, where the same violin player sat, his bow gliding back and forth across the strings. Below him, the window was open, and the same man with that same stubby gray mustache was cooking pasta. It wasn’t until Kipps pointed it out that I realized he looked exactly like Chef Boyardee. He even had the white hat.
“How much do you think they paid for that product placement?” I asked.
“This is supposed to be romantic, Jess.”
I tried not to look at Kipps too much in the simulations, because his features were always a little off from what they were in real life. His nose looked huge and angular, his wavy hair like tiny brown snakes spilling out of his scalp. His left eye always went rogue. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if he was looking at me or my right ear.
“But seriously. Italy, the association with the Venice canals and pasta. I bet that spot was as pricey as the Armani one.” I pointed to the right but I was a beat early. The gondola took a few seconds to clear the end of the building and then we saw the dark-haired couple dancing in the alley, their cheeks pressed together. In an instant the woman stepped out, spinning once under the man’s arm, then pausing to show the long, lacy black skirt to us. “Or maybe that’s better real estate. It’s more front and center.”
The violin music faded behind us, giving way to the sounds of tourists shopping for watercolors on the bridge above. An American woman with overlined lips argued with the seller over two euros. Kipps squeezed my hand, then the scene stopped and the menu came down in front of us. VENICE, ITALY, was highlighted.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re not into it. Maybe Singapore?” He flicked through the list of cities, past Tokyo and Marrakech. We’d already been to Paris five times. “What about Siem Reap? We could do the hot-air balloon over Angkor Wat again.”
“Eh?!? It’s one of the wonders of the world.”
“We’ve been to all of these places already. It’s just . . . the same thing again and again. We must’ve gone down this canal a dozen times, and we’ve played Bot Wars and explored every corner of the Spiderverse and did that stupid building game—”
“I like Skyscrapers.”
“It’s just okay.”
“It could be worse. At least we’re together.”
I tried to look at Kipps, but his eye was rebelling again. I knew he was right—we were lucky—so I kissed him. Our VR goggles clinked against each other and we pulled them off, leaving the world behind.
The immersive theater in Charli and Sara’s house was all black—black walls and black ceiling and black foam floor. Monochrome props in varying states of disarray. With the lights dimmed everything blended together, and it felt like we were floating in space, weightless, suspended in a dream. Kipps’s hand slid from my cheek to my neck as we kissed, then out across my collarbone. Whatever was missing in Venice was here, as I drew him closer, his mouth against mine.
He fell back onto the floor and I rested my face in his neck, listening to his breaths slow, then steady. I kicked at the padded gondola seat that came in the World in a Box, pushing it away from us. The scaffolding platform from Skyscrapers rested against the wall beside the lights from the Thai beach experience, which were so strong you had to wear sunblock.
“Don’t expect me to feel too sorry for you,” he said, squeezing my arm. “I mean, how bad is it, really? Being stuck here with a devastatingly handsome, younger
“Eleven months. You’re only eleven months younger.”
“Still . . . you have your own personal love machine, catering to your every whim.”
“Ew. Please do not refer to yourself as a love machine.”
“Okay, okay. Your devoted boyfriend who loves you.”
His head was leaning against mine when he said it, his eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. I tried to fix my face into something normal, but the words were still with me, and then I couldn’t stop smiling. I kept repeating them in my head—who loves you
—trying to be sure I hadn’t imagined it. It was possible he just meant it in a casual way, like how he loved the mango ice cream bars Charli ordered from Delancey Grocer, or the mattress on his bed, which was like a huge block of clay that left Kipps-shaped indents every time he got up. Your boyfriend who loves you. Your devoted boyfriend who loves you. Love. Love. Love.
I couldn’t tell if he expected me to say it back. He’d closed his eyes and I played with the front pocket of his shirt, running my finger over the stitching. I’d thought through it a hundred times. What would’ve happened if I hadn’t gotten in the car with him that day, when he shouted at me from the driver’s seat of the Land Rover. What would’ve happened if the NextGen Cloud had crapped out on the highway, with hundreds of cars racing past, before we could reach the more secluded spot by the golf course. Like-Life Productions would’ve found us and taken us back before we even made it to the city. Or if the gun had gone off a few seconds earlier, or I’d lost the book with Sara’s number in it?
Kipps was right, even if he didn’t mean it that way. We were
As boring as it was sometimes, the house Charli and Sara had built in Maine was its own world, with enough rooms and corners to lose yourself in. It was a Genius Home, an upgrade on the Smart Home, and I sometimes tripped over the machines that scuttled about, sweeping and mopping, or was startled when my favorite song blasted through the bathroom speakers as I turned on the shower. The beach was a short walk through the double gates, and there were woods surrounding the house in every direction. They’d installed an Illusion Fence around the property, which was another tech-y, 2037 invention I’d discovered after leaving Swickley. The delicate screen was like chameleon’s skin, blending into the scenery around it, so the woods looked empty, the shoreline uninterrupted. After almost fifteen years of being watched every second of every day, I’d completely disappeared.
“Hey,” I said.
Kipps turned, his eyes meeting mine.
“Did you mean that?”
? When you put it like that—”
“Love. You said you loved me.”
Maybe I was a coward, to not say it back right then. Why did I have to think and overthink everything, hesitate and question and worry and not just do the thing, do the brave thing that Kipps always seemed so capable of?
“Of course I meant it,” he said, sandwiching my hand between his. “I’ve never been in love before, but this is it. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. It definitely feels that way.”
It was still new, when he traced his fingers up mine, my skin firing beneath his touch. In the last five months Kipps became less and less an idea and more himself, and I sometimes felt like I was playing catch-up, trying to know him as well as he knew me. We’d sit hidden beneath the dock as he described his old apartment in Pennsylvania, the closet his parents had converted to a bedroom with a full-sized mattress where he and his brother, Reed, slept. He felt guilty that he’d left Reed with no note, no explanation about where he’d gone, even if he’d hated it inside the set and been angry at his parents for forcing him into a lead role. Reed was nineteen, and I vaguely remembered him from Swickley High—he was a junior when we were freshmen. When he’d graduated, so had all the extras who were his age, and even though he had a long-distance boyfriend and friends he talked to online, Kipps was one of the few people he hung out with IRL (an abbreviation Sara had taught me).
Kipps’s hair tickled my cheek. Since we’d gotten to Maine it had grown long, a shaggy mess that he tucked behind his ears. Charli didn’t know anyone she trusted enough to cut it for him, considering he wasn’t supposed to be here—neither of us were. Last month I’d turned eighteen, an event we’d kept referring to as “clearing my birthday” because that’s what it had felt like—a hurdle in the distance. Now that I wasn’t a minor anymore my parents couldn’t take me back to the Stuck in the ’90s
set. Like-Life Productions couldn’t legally justify looking for me, though I knew they still were. As the weeks wore on it was Kipps we worried about. Kipps was still seventeen, and the most vulnerable, and the biggest reason we didn’t venture out more. It never seemed worth the risk to go far from the house, knowing someone might recognize us. We were always one rando’s iPhone photo or livestream away from discovery.
“What are we going to do, stuck here for ten more months?” I said with a smirk, propping my head on my hand so I could look at him. I had ideas . . . we both did. There was only so much time we could spend playing VR games or studying to get our final credits to graduate. Lately we snuck into each other’s rooms more and more, our limbs twisted together, Kipps’s hands fumbling with the clasp of my bra. We were speeding closer to having sex, to losing our virginity to each other, to doing it (a phrase Sara had described as “hopelessly heteronormative”). However you said it, I was starting to understand what the big deal was.
“I don’t know.” He smiled back. “We’ll have to find something.”
“Hmmmmm . . .” I put my finger on my chin, pretending to be deep in thought.
We kissed again, but this time I pulled away, standing so we didn’t get into it right here, right on the theater floor. It was almost time for dinner, and it was my night to cook. He watched me as I straightened my shorts, a purple denim pair Sara had bought for me online. He watched me as I combed my hair with my fingers and called the lights up, so the room came into focus around us. Then I padded to the door.
I hovered there, watching him watch me, and rested my head on the frame. He rolled over and tucked his arm under his head, as if that last kiss had drained him of his life force.
“Dramatic much?” I asked.
“And . . . I love you too,” I finally said. “So so so so so much.”
I raised my arms, spreading them wide. I love you this much. More than I can actually say.
He threw his head back and covered his heart, as if the words had shot across the room and struck him in the chest. Then he was smiling, and I was smiling, and he turned to me
one last time to watch me go.
“Oh, thank you, Jess Flynn,” he said, finally prying himself off the floor. Love, love, love
. For some reason, it didn’t compare.
My name on his lips was still my favorite sound.
Copyright © 2022 by Anna Carey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.