By David Castlewitz
The character that emerged from the smart phone reminded Carlton of the bullies he'd dealt with at every school he'd ever attended, from Mrs. Margery's Grammar Academy to Elton Prep. The avatar stepped off the phone's screen and onto the tabletop. It exuded confidence, and that put a twinkle in Carlton's light hazel eyes and made him more certain of himself than any avatar he'd tried in the past. A few taps on the screen changed the avatar's eyes from bright red to a more normal hazel, its blonde hair from buzz-cut to shoulder length, like Carlton's.
Satisfied, Carlton tapped the pay button and sat back, his chair against the coffee shop's dull green wall, and waited for the inevitable interaction. He picked up his phone and whispered a name by which to identify his new avatar. "Billy," he said. "Billy Bonkers."
Billy pranced back and forth. "What's happening out there in real people world?"
Carlton sipped his coffee.
"Want to fight?" asked a teenager who took the chair next to Carlton's
"Not a fighting app," Carlton said. He'd purchased this new avatar in the hope of attracting one of the young women he saw at this coffee shop. Many of them had avatars riding on their shoulders or perched on their heads, which prompted flirting that often resulted in something more.
The avatar that emerged from the kid's phone was a big-headed, barrel-chested man wearing a pair of tight-fitting black shorts.
"I'm not fighting you," Carlton said.
"Let your avie speak for itself," the kid said.
"Walk off," Billy said. Dressed in faded jeans ripped at the knees, white shirt not tucked in, and with sandals on its feet, Billy affected a casual, come-talk-to-me look, much like the one Carlton tried whenever he left his apartment to prowl the mall and coffee shops for companionship.
"My avie can beat the crap out of your avie," the kid said.
"Ten bucks. I'll put up ten. You put up ten. Winner takes the pot."
Carlton watched two young women pass by his table; their short blonde hair and facial makeup and outer dress so much the same, they looked like twins. One paused and looked at Billy. She smiled. She tapped the cloth purse dangling on a cord looped across her shoulder and a pixie-faced avatar peeked out from the handbag's open top.
"Fighters," the look-alike companion said. "Don't waste your time. Kid stuff."
They walked on.
"You won't get rid of me if you don't put up a fight," the kid said, his face brightening as though he'd just won a contest or aced a test at school.
"I like your JEMs."
Carlton looked at the source of the intruding female voice. The young woman pointed a lacquered fingernail at the avatars now prancing back and forth across the tabletop. Some media maven once called these mesmerizing holographic toys "Just Energized Magnetism" and the moniker -- shortened to JEM -- stuck. Even the app-maker used the fabricated name, though magnetism had nothing to do with the holographic projections.
The woman seated herself in the chair next to Carlton's, her triangular face glowing, silicon beads of red and blue embedded in her high cheeks. She pulled a cell phone from the pocket of her one-piece outfit, which shimmered and changed from one hue of blue to another.
"I'll take the winner," she said, tapping the phone's screen. A robust, black haired female avatar in a blue-and-white one-piece bathing suit emerged. It strutted across the screen, and then stepped onto the table, where it suddenly grew inches in height, gaining girth as well.
"Meet Betty Blue," the woman said.
The kid gulped. "Misty," he said.
"You've heard of me," the woman shot back.
The kid snatched his cell phone from the tabletop. His fighter avatar disappeared between his fingers. Red-faced, he hurried away.
Misty smiled at Carlton. "Still want to fight?"
"Billy's not a fighter," Carlton said.
Misty continued to smile. "Looks like a bully to me."
Carlton searched for words. He often reached this point with people, especially young women, when he couldn't think fast enough to keep a new acquaintance interested, to turn a casual encounter into a friendship, to fashion love from shared humor.
"Wanna try me?" Billy said, hands on hips, shoulder-length hair shining.
"No," Carlton said. "We're not fighting."
"Says you," Billy replied before grappling with Betty. The two holograms merged. Hands on one another. Bodies entwined. Carlton stared at the melee. Sparks flew. Tufts of black hair and curls of blonde erupted like feathers from a stirred up chicken coop.
Billy fell backwards, Betty atop him. Misty smiled.
The avatars kissed.
Carlton blinked. When Betty rose to its feet it offered Billy a helping hand.
"I won," Misty said. "Pay up."
"We didn't have a bet."
"Sure we did. Ten bucks."
Carlton searched his memory for what had transpired moments before the fight, moments after Misty sat at the table and chased the kid away. In a trance, unable to remember any details, he transferred ten dollars to Misty's account with a tap on an icon in the corner of his cell phone's screen. An animated image of old-time paper currency fluttered to the other corner of the screen, where a locked vault representing Misty's bank account opened and welcomed the incoming ten dollar bill.
"What now?" Carlton asked.
"Indeed," Misty said. She fingered her phone. Her Betty Blue avatar dissolved. She walked away. Carlton followed her with his eyes. He lost her in the crowd. But later, while he toyed with Billy Bonkers -- finger boxing with it -- and while keeping a lookout for whoever else might sit at his table, he noticed Misty again.
She and that kid with the fighter avatar stood near an exit door. They laughed and put their heads together, acting like friends who'd just pulled off a stunt.
- - -
Thursday, November 10, 2016
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