Before She Wakes - Sharon Lynn Fisher Page 0,1

He drew open the tent flap.

“Eve.” I glanced at the sign above the flap. THE GARDEN, it read, and beneath the words was an illustration of a green man with an oversized acorn cap for a hat. My feet seemed to grow roots.

“Nothing to be afraid of,” urged the clown’s voice, the reassurance tinged with a side of amusement at my expense.

What is this, a goddamn conspiracy?

I uprooted my feet and strode into the tent.

At first I thought the woman on the fat sofa within was a child. But she was just a very small person. And contradicting my expectation of animal skins and a fake snake for an accessory, she wore a neat coral-pink suit.

“Welcome to The Garden,” she said with a bright smile, motioning me to the chair across from her.

Between us stretched a low table covered with small gold-and-green boxes. Bright as the boxes were, their contents were subdued in comparison. Nestled inside each one, in what looked like Easter grass made from recycled paper, was a candy acorn the size of a cherry.

“This is an exciting day for you,” said Eve. The vibration under her voice suggested she was pretty excited herself. I wondered if she’d be able to keep that up all day. How many people had been admitted to the tent so far?

I lifted my eyebrows, studying the luxurious tower of chestnut hair atop her head. “Is it?”

Eve nodded, and I admired the structure’s stability.

“Our sweetmeat has just been approved for commercial use. As we are Portland-based, we’ve chosen the Garden of Earthly Delights Fair as the point of distribution for our beta group.”

“Beta…Doesn’t that mean something’s still being tested?” I’d dated a software developer for a while. It was hard to avoid in this part of the country.

“I assure you we are fully safety tested and approved. But we are eager to improve our product based on customer feedback. So eager, in fact, that we are offering our sweetmeat free of charge for the duration of the festival.” She lifted one of the boxes from the table, removed the lid from the bottom, and closed it. Then she held it out to me. “All we ask is that you call the number on the card inside the box to schedule an interview within two weeks of trying our product.”

“Thanks, Eve…” I said slowly, eyeing the box like it had fangs. “But I’m not sure I’m feeling quite that adventurous.” If you weren’t so afraid…“Maybe I’ll visit you again next year and buy a few boxes.”

“Of course,” she said, her lipsticked smile not slipping a fraction. She placed the box on the sofa next to her. “Next year we’ll offer them for twenty tokens each.”

I stared at her. “Twenty tokens for one?”

“You only need one.”

Small pink salesperson, 1. Me, 0. I held out my hand. Her smile brightened, and in a motion too quick to detect with the human eye, the box was transferred to me.

“You won’t be disappointed.”

“What does it do?” I asked, opening the box to study the innocuous-looking nut.

“Are you a virgin?”

I glanced up, my mouth hinging open.

“You’ve eaten sweetmeats before?”

“Oh. Yes.”

She nodded. “This is the same thing, but a much more vivid and sustained experience. Like you’ve taken four at once, but with no unpleasant side effects. You’ll also find it more realistic than your garden-variety sweetmeat.” She chuckled at her own pun. “We don’t see the point in mixing in a sedative. You won’t feel like you’re under the influence.”

I wasn’t sure that last point was in the plus column, but I kept it to myself. “You mean it’s more like a VR game?”

“Yes, very much like that. You’ll have the sense that you’re not in control, like a dream you can’t escape. But it’s all driven by your subconscious, and you can stop anytime you want.”

I frowned. Sweetmeats were regulated narcotics, not simulators. “How do you stop it?”

“You use our safe word: Dorothy.”

They were mixing their cultural references, but the context would make it easy to remember. And it wasn’t a word anyone was likely to say in the course of regular conversation. But something didn’t add up.

“How can a sweetmeat respond to use of a safe word? It’s just a drug, isn’t it?”

Her smile tightened infinitesimally. “I’m afraid that’s proprietary.”

It was all well and good for Tammy Tarot to tell me I needed to stop being afraid. I was even self-aware enough to admit she was right. But you had to draw a line somewhere. I imagined