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It’s Free to Laugh

James Cato

I’m thinking about that No Good Very Bad Day book while driving to my brother’s funeral, beside my husband, Lee—who isn’t speaking to me—when an ad-bot whirs up along the passenger’s side of the car. Lee sighs as if to say, “Of course you let an ad-bot track us!”

He’s right. I’m using a GPS to route the trip to the funeral home and I should have searched for the directions earlier, then turned off cellular to avoid location-tracking. Now the creepy one-wheeled triangle will stream targeted ads at our car from the highway shoulder for hours. A shiver trickles down my spine because it probably knows I’ve lost someone. They always know.

“I miss billboards,” I say lightly. “Remember those?”

Lee makes a sound like nnn, eyes on the horizon. “Or those tunnel cartoons,” I try again, “the ones that moved like animation reels when you drove through.” When Lee fails to respond, I flick a glance at the pine tree-shaped bot as it rips information from my phone’s search history. Its screen flashes with a roily splash: Smooth Amber Bourbon. Let it warm your insides.

The ad is perfect: sexually suggestive for my sputtering marriage, and if that fails, alcohol to dull the pain. I wonder what I googled to earn this plug—could it have been “101 Ways to Keep Your Man Satisfied?” I knew that might get me in trouble. I made it to #26: Become the cynosure! Make him feel lucky by dressing sexy around his friends.

I wish driving grated on my nerves less than the ad-bot or my sulking husband, but sadly the road only reminds me of my brother’s accident. We weren’t close, Eddie and I, but the details of his death drove a wedge through my marriage—the drunk driver had careened through a red light, flattening him in front of the ‘walk’ sign. Suddenly, the ad-bot’s whiskey picture frightens me, and I slam the pedal, trying to shake it. The burnished frame tails in my rearview.

“Slow down!” Lee snaps, ending his monkish silence. “Traffic!” We roll to a stop. I note with satisfaction that most other cars are self-driving, but am less pleased to see that we’re the only ones hounded by an ad-bot. “Oh, god,” Lee says. As the bot sidles back beside us, I see the commercial on its triangular screen has changed. Get to a healthier place, it reads, featuring a winking middle-aged guy. Sign up with SecondTry, a dating app for those recently divorced.

Our stalled neighbors peer at us, trying to glimpse the faces of a faltering marriage. Lee stares straight ahead, tension caroming through the vehicle like an echo. Eventually, the traffic eases—there’d been a crash ahead, SUV into a telephone pole, and all the passersby needed to check it out. Nothing but human morbidity blocking our way. I almost turn to Lee for comfort before remembering the tissue box and the dry shower.

#

This morning, halfway to the grocery store, I’d turned back home to find Lee. I wanted him to talk me through my brother’s death, but first I needed to end the Tissue Box War, a fight different than any other. When we argued about banning free-steering cars, the conversation ran rich, his jingoistic individualism versus my bleeding heart moralism, but the empty tissue box warranted no such passion. We both just refused to recycle the thing.

Instead it collected dust for months like a stale gingerbread house, listening to us bicker until we ran out of topics. To me it seemed like a dark lung drowning in our pregnant pause. I googled remedies for silent fights until Eddie died, but then I could only hear Lee’s past scorn: “So what if free-steering cars cause more deaths? It’s our right to choose to drive poorly—banning free-steering cars would trample our free will.”

Enough was enough, though. On the day of my brother’s funeral, I was ready to hurl that horrid cardboard shell into the recycling bin. Really, I was ready to fall into Lee’s arms. Yet he didn’t show up as I scoured the house, until I poked my head into the master bathroom. He hunched strangely in the bathtub, dry as a bone with his phone moaning. One sudsy hand squelched between his legs as we locked eyes. As the tissue box fight ended, a new chasm rose to take its place.

#

The road grows vacant, trees clawing light from the sun. The ad-bot’s face flicks from teeth whiteners to new romantic sit-coms to Kleenex ultra-soft tissues(!), as it ducks and weaves branches and tire scraps in the berms. I try parsing meaning from the commercials but come up short. The log-jam needs to be busted, but how? Should I address what I saw? I squint over at the bot, since it seems to know more about us than I do.

“Stop!” Lee shouts.

A deer startles in front of the car, all knees and antlers. Its shiny eyes twirl into mine. My husband’s free-steering car does nothing to avoid the collision, the bent ankles, the inverted ribs, so I can only swerve away from its bray of fear, louder than my brother’s—but not fast enough. Before impact, though, the ad-bot dives ahead of us, skewering the buck on its crown like the star of a Christmas tree and launching it out of our path in a smoldering heap of meat and wires. We skid to a stop, gulp in a few ladles of air, and kiss for the first time in weeks.

“Did you see it?’ I ask, because just before its screen shattered I saw: GRATEFUL? DONATE TO SUPPORT AD-BOTS TODAY.

“How shallow is that? Anything to get a buck,” Lee says, and I can’t stop laughing.

Author Bio: James Cato does environmental justice work outside Pittsburgh. He has stories in Daily Science Fiction, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, JMWW, and Bending Genres, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction. He lives with a gecko and a snake. He’d enjoy a conversation with you.

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Wyld Flash 47 – It’s Free to Laugh

Advertising – it’s everywhere. And you can’t always fast forward through the commercials, particularly when you’re driving and they’re driving you to distraction. But sometimes the irony is sweet. It’s Free to Laugh by James Cato is our 47th free flash fiction story, now live on our website.

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