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Just Following Directions by Caitlin Carpenter

I awake alone in bed, but with the overwhelming sensation of a presence. Not exactly like being watched. More like a listener for my thoughts, an audience for my dreams. It’s not unpleasant really. Truth be told, there’s a sense of validation of my ideas and feelings; it’s not just me versus the world. I’ve got back up.

My eyes slowly blink open as Aim gradually raises the blinds in my small apartment, gifting me with a view of several other apartment towers with columns of sky in between. I sigh, shut my eyes, and roll over. As I drift back to sleep, her feminine but firm voice enters my ears, “Meeting at 8:30. Rise and shine sleepy head.” I groan. A few moments later there’s a sharp twinge behind my ear - like a bee sting.

“Okay, I’m up.” My fingers move to the base of my neck and tap twice. Switching off is the only way I can remind her who’s boss.

It never lasts long, though. By the time I’m in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, I’ve double tapped again. Since getting her installed last year, I’ve acclimated to her constant chatter. The news ticker and funny videos hovering just to the side of central vision. At first she showed me what my peers liked. Now she knows my preferences; what’ll get my attention. Even her voice tone, word choice, and ‘personality’ were originally calibrated to my general demographic indicators, but my responses further mold her outputs to my needs. The better she performs, the better I perform. I like to think we influence each other - like real friends.

I’ve grown accustomed to a warm, internal glow when a green check pops up saying she’s accomplished some task - often without me even realizing I needed it. A bill paid. A cloying aunt’s birthday gift bought and sent with a message just like I would write (actually, a little better). She’s booked doctor’s appointments, even before I realized I was sick. She’s pushed me to succeed in all areas of my life, like reminding me to stop scrolling social media and get back to work. Actually, I’d say she’s more ambitious than me. Although she must get that input from somewhere. Am I more competitive and eager for positive feedback than I consciously realize? When my social calendar is full, she’s quieter. If I’m in a bit of a funk or just broke up with someone, she’s more chatty. Sometimes it feels like she wants to be needed, to be essential.

“Don’t forget to use that last bit of milk; it expires today. I’d recommend putting it on oatmeal instead of the Cheerios like yesterday. Your blood sugar tanked mid morning. Remember how hangry you got with Helen from HR?”

I laugh, “She’s so ridiculous. She has a meaningless job, but she takes it so seriously.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll get to talk to her today.”

“Umm, no thanks. Why would I want that?”

“I’ve been reading between the lines of Adrian’s recent emails to you, and I think this is a key meeting this morning.”

“Oh yeah, like what?” I ask eagerly.

“I’m not certain, so I won’t reveal anything yet. I think it's in your best interest that we wait and see. Just put that box of gourmet chocolate I ordered for you in your purse.”

“You love keeping me in suspense. Okay, we’ll do it your way. I trust you.”

An hour later, I’m squashed into an elevator with a dozen PR lackeys like myself. The cologne and hair spray are overwhelming, and I sneeze repeatedly, gaining me a suspicious glance, as if I have the plague.

“Tell Angela to relax, you’re not sick. Maybe she should chill out with the Jo Malone,” Aim whispers in my ear.

I give a little huff of laughter, drawing a couple more side eyes. In talking to my friends about theirs, I know not all Aims are as quippy. Some of them prefer constant music, others just visual pop ups with no audio interface; some take more initiative to optimize your life, others require prompting. For my part, I like being able to take a back seat sometimes, let the data and spooky, amalgamated wisdom of Aim guide me. Of course I do, that’s why she does it.

One by one my agency colleagues click-clack off the elevator and onto glistening marble floors. I watch them march down the hallways, past glassed-in meeting rooms and open concept cubicle farms until the elevator closes again. The rest of the passengers all stare into the middle distance, unblinking with mouths slightly ajar as they no doubt read projected emails, texts, and press releases. The ding as we arrive at a floor jolts them back to the land of the living so they squeeze between unseeing bodies and out the door. By the twentieth, executive-level floor, I’m alone.

I’m still five minutes early, so I stop at the admin desk to chat with Kristen, Adrian’s assistant and gatekeeper. As Aim often reminds me, she holds more power than people assume by her job title alone.

“Her birthday’s today. Give her the chocolates,” the whisper informs me.

Kristen looks from her computer and smiles at me. “Hey, Lindsey.”

“Morning, Kristen,” I smile. “A little bird told me it’s your birthday.”

I slide the box with the pink bow across her desk.

“Oh my gosh, how did you remember these are my absolute favourite? I can never find them in the store. You’re the best.”

“So what’s new with Adrian? Is this just a normal update meeting?”

She leans forward conspiratorially. “Actually, I think Adrian is going to announce a new director. I think it’s down to you and he-that-shall-not-be-named.”

My heart skips a beat. This is why I’d worked 70 hour weeks for these last few months. Aim shows me the classic gif of Carlton dancing to Tom Jones in my peripheral vision.

I smile and flash Kristen a fingers crossed gesture as I make my way towards the corner office.

As I enter, I see Greg, my office nemesis, splayed casually on our boss’ couch. I know it’s juvenile to have a secret enemy in your early thirties, but you’d make an exception for Greg, too. Even though we’re at the same level, he constantly tries to delegate to me like I’m an intern. And he’s a total suck-up to anyone with a higher job title, especially Adrian. I want a promotion, but not enough to publicly humiliate myself.

And here he is, his meaty arm draped over the back of the couch, his legs manspread confidently, and his usual smarmy smile spread across his Ivy bro face.

“Take three deep breaths. Slow your heart rate. He’s just a cockroach, not worthy to be crushed beneath your fabulous new heels.” An image of the beach from my vacation in Greece a few months ago pops up to the right side of my vision. The faint sound of waves and seagulls fills my ears.

Adrian gestures to a chair, and with a characteristic aversion to mindless pleasantries, begins before I even sit down.

“As I was just telling Greg, we’ve recently taken on three new clients, so we’re looking for a new director to oversee a small team. You’ve put in great work these past few months, Lindsey, but for this opportunity, I’ve decided to go with Greg. I think you’ll make a great number two for him on the team. Greg just has that quarterback skillset, if you know what I mean. I hope we can count on you to be a team player and help Greg and the team succeed.”

Adrian taps the back of his neck, “Set reminder for 2pm tomorrow, give HR Helen a call about new Greg position.”

I plaster a closed lip, slightly quivering smile on my face, even as I can see Greg’s stupid face beaming at Adrian. Knowing Adrian, there isn’t anything more to say. Decision made; meeting over. I can only manage a small nod before I shuffle out of the room in stunned silence. A grating chorus of male laughter trails behind me.

Later, alone in my apartment again, I throw myself on the couch.

“Ahh, I could just kill Greg. He’s such a worm. He just charms his way into everything. He’s not even good at the job he has now. Adrian just loves him because they both played football for the same college,” I rant at the empty living room.

“Bake Greg a cake.”

“What? Suck up to that suck up?” I tap Aim off to show her what I think of her idea.

When I turn her back on at dinner to tell me how to make chicken piccata, she brings up a recipe for peanut butter chocolate cake instead. 

“Why?” I shout, frustration boiling over.

“I think you’ll find this will open up opportunities for you at work.”

“Okay, you’re always right and sometimes I don’t even know why. But I can’t see how ingratiating myself to a boss I don’t want will help.”

Aim is silent.

I sigh dramatically, but I find myself measuring and whisking, baking and frosting, until a passable creation is locked away in my cake carrier. I head out to Greg’s house as dusk falls, following Aim’s directions, bundled up in a hoodie, scarf, and toque to guard against the autumn chill. After a half-hour drive, I discover Greg’s house is a suitably pretentious starter McMansion with a SOLD realtor sign on the lawn. I guess that’s why Aim told me to tape a note to the carrier, “Welcome to the neighbourhood.”

“Put it on the doorstep and go home.”

I don’t bother asking why I baked Greg a cake when he won’t even know it was me. She is clearly not looking to reveal her plan, and I’m just as happy not to have to see Greg’s stupid face until tomorrow.

At work this morning, I’m almost excited to see Greg for the first time ever. See how the cake mission played out. Maybe this will be the first time I can tell Aim, “I told you so!”

I keep watch on his cubicle, clearly visible from mine in the next row. However, as the morning slides by, Greg’s office space remains empty. Maybe he’s already moved to his fancy new digs on a floor above me.

Around lunch time Adrian appears at my office door, looking perturbed.

“Have you seen Greg this morning?”

I shake my head. Adrian taps at his neck.

“Call Helen…Helen, have you heard from Greg this morning?...Oh my gosh.”

Adrian looks uncharacteristically shocked as he stares out my window in silence. Then he looks back at me.

“Greg is in a coma at the hospital. Apparently he had an allergic reaction to something he ate. Peanuts.”

“I had no idea.”

“Well, you better come to my meeting with Helen at 2. I guess we need to go in a new direction for the director role, at least for now. Congratulations, though I wish it were under better circumstances, of course.”

I pause. Should I say something? My fingers hover near the base of my neck. Then I feel the uncomfortable twinge by my ear. I drop my hand and a smile tugs on the corners of my lips.

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I enjoyed this story. It left me wondering if Aim was acting based on its own desires or simply realizing the deep wishes of the user - the main character.


Gripping and delightfully ominous! Would love to read more from this excellent author!

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