It was the year 2063 and romance was dead.
Advertisers had killed it with a thing people called a “Love Gun.” It was a frightening invention–the first time something like mind control seemed possible. The way it worked was that when you looked at a certain sign or billboard, a small gun placed inside of it would shoot you with a burst of energy. You wouldn’t feel it directly, but the blast would cause your brain to release a blissful flow of dopamine. Whenever you saw the ad again the same effect would happen, and soon you found yourself in love with a certain brand of tooth paste, deodorant, carbonated sugar-water or whatever happened to be on that sign.
It was in this era that the cynical phrase, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is most easily manipulated by advertisements,” was coined.
It took only about a year before the secretly placed Love Guns were discovered. The advertising agencies, along with the companies who used them, were sued for billions. However, squashing those responsible for this terrible invention proved to be much like squashing a mother spider; a thousand baby spiders ran in every direction. The technology was no longer a tightly held secret. Multiple scandals broke out of politicians shooting supporters with Love Guns. Leaders in third world countries were horribly abusing their loving subjects. Cult leaders had a new edge. The thousand spiders had found their dark corners; were making webs.
In general, charismatic and beautiful people were distrusted more than ever before. Love at first sight was no longer celebrated, but feared. Every sort of emotional manipulation was looked at with disgust. Romance, as people had known it, was dead.
And, as a result, dates were strange:
Katie and Donald sat in silence. Two beautiful mannequins with coffee cups before them.
Suddenly, Katie stood up. She put on her coat.
“You have to go?” said Donald, surprised.
“Yeah,” Katie sighed, “Like you care. You’ve hardly spoken to me. You clearly don’t want to be here.”
“I want to be here,” insisted Donald.
“Really?” said Katie.
“Well, I mean,” said Donald, correcting the accidental compliment, “I mean, there’s not a whole lot else going on today so…”
Katie left the coffee shop before Donald could finish his sentence.
Donald tried to take a sip of his coffee, but found his throat too tight to swallow it. With tears welling in his eyes, he spit the coffee back into the cup. He felt sick to his stomach. He wiped his lips and the corners of his eyes.
Eventually, Donald stood up and was about to leave when he noticed Katie’s purse was on the ground next to the chair where she had sat. There was a book with golden pages sticking out of it. He pulled the book out and found it to be a hard-cover edition of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. It was bound in an old, red leather cover. It was surprisingly light. Inside, he found the center of the every page carved out so that it served more as an a empty box than a book. The hole was shaped like a large teardrop. He flipped through the ring-like pages and then stopped when he came to a line that had been circled several times with a pen. It read:
You are a lover. Borrow Cupid’s wings–
The rest of the line was cut off by the teardrop-shaped abyss.
He closed the book and slid it back into Katie’s purse. He then sulked from the coffee shop to his car, purse in hand. When he got home he moped into his parent’s house and into the kitchen where he sat at a table and put his head down.
Donald heard a chair being pulled. He looked up to see his 75 year old grandfather, Lawrence, sit down a few chairs away from him. Lawrence was wearing a thick bathrobe with pajamas underneath. He was generally unkempt and smelled like a glass of milk that had been out too long. Donald was glad he didn’t choose to sit closer.
“So, how was the date?” said Lawrence. He didn’t look directly at Donald, but toward the center of the table
“It wasn’t really a date,” said Donald.
“I thought it was.”
There was a long pause.
Then Lawrence said, “You know, I never talked to your father about dating. Did he ever talk to you about… women? No? And my father never advised me about women either. We seem to have a long tradition in our family of not passing on our wisdom of the subject. …Amazing how long our House has lasted. Well. All traditions must come to an end. Tell me about your date, Donald.”
Donald told his grandfather everything that happened.
“It doesn’t sound like you were making an effort to impress her,” said Lawrence when Donald was done.
“I don’t ever want to impress, or manipulate, or influence anyone,” Donald said bitterly.
“Then it sounds like you succeeded. Look, Don, she’s a big girl. She can think for herself. You’re not going to accidently brainwash someone. That’s not how it works. You like her. You want her to like you too. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Donald didn’t say anything for fear that his face would erupt in tears and laughter. His grandfather’s words had magically lifted a heavy weight off of Donald and he found himself, at least for the moment, free from neurotic thoughts.
“You should ask her out again,” continued Lawrence, “But this time, try and be a little romantic.”
“How?” Donald managed to ask.
Lawrence scratched his head, “I don’t know. Give her a flower. …And put a surprise in there somewhere.”
* * *
Katie and Donald had first met in the break room of a department store. Donald had been fixing himself a cup of tea when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and found an angel introducing herself to him. She was new there, had just started in the makeup department. She was so beautiful that Donald had to look out the window, straight at the low February sun while he spoke to her.
Donald was heading toward the makeup department now with Katie’s purse in hand. When he reached the right floor, he found it mostly empty, except for a few employees who were removing all Valentine’s Day decorations. The head manager had caved in to the boycotts and outrage caused by his branch endorsing the commercialized and manipulative holiday. The decorations were being removed before the holiday had come.
As Donald approached the makeup counter he saw Katie delicately picking up glass perfume bottles in the shape of hearts and placing them into a cardboard box. Another employee nearby was having fun tearing down the Valentine’s Day banners, and pricking kevlar balloons with a pin. POP! went the balloons every now and then.
Donald set Katie’s purse on the makeup counter. Katie looked up, saw the purse and placed it down behind the counter.
“Thanks,” said Katie. She avoided making eye contact. She was more beautiful than ever.
“No problem,” said Donald.
“Your book has a hole in it,” Donald added.
“What?” Katie’s face started going red. “Oh, yes. I know–I didn’t realize that until after I bought it.” She turned and went back to work on the perfume bottles.
“Must have been disappointing,” said Donald.
“It was. You shouldn’t have been looking through my things,” said Katie.
“You’re right,” said Donald. He felt his chest and underarms grow hot and damp. “I’m sorry I looked at it.”
“Can I make it up to you?” said Donald. His undershirt was now soaked. “How about dinner. On me.”
“Um,” said Katie, “Sure.”
They arranged for Donald to pick Katie up the following night, which, as it happened to be, was Valentine’s Day.
* * *
When Donald left, Katie opened her purse and rummaged though it. She pulled out The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Inside the teardrop-shaped hole she found a stemless red rose.
* * *
Donald went straight from the makeup department to the downtown market place to find a gift for Katie.
The market was an enormous maze of staircases reaching down to multiple underground levels. At the street level, Donald bought a small bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. He soon wished he had bought these items last, for as he went deeper into the market he was constantly sneered at by passerby’s.
Below the first level were poster shops, comic book shops and candy shops. There was also a comedy club in the back corner called Jokes On You, which Donald had read about recently. An amateur comedian had become infamous there after he had rigged the stage lights with Love Guns and faced them out toward the audience before the show started. The first row of tables fell immediately in love with him and laughed to tears after his first joke. Everyone else, seeing what was really happening, charged the stage and beat the poor man nearly to death. Donald thought about his approaching date with Katie. He sympathized with that comedian, with that desperate desire to be liked.
Donald passed by a guide who was leading a small tour group. The guide pointed out shops that were once opium dens, which then became day care centers. And then the guide told of how the ghost of a little boy with missing eyes ran around in search of his mother and father. Donald also listened to a story of a sorrowful Native American Spirit who had been spotted in a bead shop.
Donald went down another level and then down another, until, at last, he found what he was looking for. It was a used bookstore that was stacked to the ceiling with very old-looking books. The sign above the door read, in old english type, The Apothecary.
The Apothecary was dim and empty, except for an old, emaciated clerk waited at the front desk.
“Hello,” said Donald, “I’m looking for a copy of Romeo and Juliet. Actually, I’m looking for a very specific edition of that book.” Donald went on to describe the book that he had found in Katie’s purse. He wanted to replace her unfortunate copy with the full text.
As Donald described the book, the clerk nodded, licked his lips and smirked at the flowers and chocolates that Donald was holding. He stopped Donald mid-sentence and said, “I see, I see. One moment.” He then turned and walked through a curtain that was behind him.
He emerged in a second with a book in his hand.
“I believe this is what you want,” said the clerk. The book he placed on the desk was an old, battered copy of The Art of War.
“No, I said Romeo and Juliet. You know… the famous love story.”
The clerk winked and tapped the book gently, “All is fair in love and war, eh?” He then leaned in and whispered, “But why should war have guns, and not love? That’s hardly fair.”
The man seemed to be speaking in riddles to Donald. They were both growing impatient with each other.
“Look, this isn’t the book that–”
“Open it,” said the clerk.
Donald turned open the cover and saw a familiar sight. The inside pages had been dug out in the middle–in the shape of a teardrop. But, sitting snugly in that space was a gray piece of metal. It was, in fact, a handheld version of a Love Gun. Donald could do nothing but stare down at the thing in disbelief.
“Oh, how did that get there,” the clerk said, “Why, it looks like one of those new Love Guns that can be easily concealed in the palm of your hand. It fires only once and can be crushed to sand after it’s use.”
Donald remained in a silent shock. It was obvious to him now. Adoration had blocked all suspicion.
“…You use it by shooting your victim in the back of their head,” the clerk continued, “Be sure that your face is the first one they see. Only 80 dollars…”
* * *
Katie found herself sitting at a private table for two, complete with partitions that separated her from the rest of the restaurant. She was alone at the moment. Donald had left to go wash his hands. She was relieved to be free from his constant loving stares and gushing compliments.
She glanced at the exit through the partition. She desperately wanted to leave, to escape this trap of her own making. She hadn’t realized what an effect the gun had had on poor Donald. She couldn’t be with him like this. She silently cursed that old clerk who had told her the gun did “little more than what perfume or makeup does.” “A slight enhancement of their perception of you,” he had said. She began to day dream of moving far away from the city, away from smooth talkers and flatterers, away from advertisements plastered on every surface–and the noise. The constant noise.
Katie then heard footsteps approaching the partition. She straightened up in her chair. She decided that she would tell Donald everything. She might be hated, publicly humiliated, arrested. She didn’t care. It had to stop here.
Strangely, the footsteps stopped right behind Katie. She then heard a familiar “click.”
* * *
Evan, a waiter, soon came to take orders from the couple. But upon entering their private area he found a gruesome sight–crimson covered the man’s neck. Katie was kissing it, smearing it with her lipstick.
Evan backed away, having never seen a couple so appallingly in love.