Marcy was the last to arrive at Peter’s apartment for November’s monthly movie night. She had moved from the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin to the bustling San Francisco recently enough that she hadn’t truly settled in to the Big City life yet, but long enough to start making some acquaintances that she trusted just enough to meet at night, in a group setting.
She’d first met Peter at Bones Apparel, where he worked and she accidentally spilled a milkshake from Andy’s she’d brought in and almost immediately dropped, making a strawberry mess all over the floor just past the men’s winter lineup. As if by fate, Marcy then ran into Peter three separate times at Saint Aengus Coffee and two other times at the coffee shop across from the stadium. Each time, he’d smile and say hello and she’d smile back wordlessly for a brief moment before leaving.
It wasn’t until the 6th or 7th time — in a grocery store, this time — bumping into the same guy in a city of well over a million people that she threw her hands up and finally let herself fall victim to fate. They talked, exchanged numbers, and went on with their lives.
Five weeks later, Marcy saw Peter’s apartment for the first time. The whole space was effectively one large room with spaces segregated by furniture and decor as one does when they find themselves without walls. Completely empty bookshelves built into the wall ran the full length from Marcy to a kitchen area on the other side of the apartment where she spotted Peter talking excitedly to a man who’d shortly be introduced as Paul. To her right, two comfortable-looking couches with two couples sat chatting with wild gestures yet quiet voices. Past them, a dining room table with a half dozen chairs separated the couch area from a large open space with even more chairs, a couch, two loveseats, and what looked like a tree stump, all arranged to face each other in a circle. It looked set up more for a house party than a movie night.
“Marcy, Marcy,” Peter exclaimed on his way over to welcome her in and introduce her to the others.
“Nice to meet you,” Paul said, following Peter over.
The other two couples introduced themselves as friends of Peter from school. Caspar and Astelia had weird names that fit their personalities; Caspar seemed to flit in and out of paying any attention whatsoever to the conversation, while Astelia picked up the slack and listened intently, but prescribed meaning behind everything anyone said.
“We were destined to find each other,” she concluded, giggling at Caspar’s blank stare into nothingness. “He’s the yin to my yang, as the Chinese used to say.”
Jacob and Trish were immediately less interesting people, but Trish had a genuine, toothy smile and Jacob mimed shaking Marcy’s hand from the couch with a solemn nod as if they were starting a business meeting.
And, like starting a business meeting, Peter announced to the group, “Well, let’s get started! With me; over here, everybody!”
The group followed Peter over to the corner of the room, where he unlatched a panel from the wall and exposed the house controls. Smart houses had been around since before Marcy was born, but Appleton had always been behind on the times and only started getting installations — much to the dismay of its Luddite mayor—only a few months before Marcy decided she was tired of living two miles away from an overprotective mother and started planning her escape to a real, adult life of freedom.
As the floor throughout the entire apartment began to glow a soft orange, everyone but Marcy continued chatting nonchalantly as each piece of furniture began to bubble and melt down to pools of black goop that absorbed into the floor.
“What kind of movie is it this time?” Paul asked, and the group quieted to listen.
Peter smiled, then looked at Marcy. She’d told him at their second grocery store encounter — at an entirely different grocery store — that she was a fan of the old cult classic “whodunit” movies, which at the time he’d waved off as unfamiliar, but was ultimately able to save the conversation by asking what she liked most about them.
“The suspense,” she’d told him, almost immediately, “the mystery.” He had nodded but stayed silent, and she kept talking. He had a funny way of abusing silence to keep her talking when he wasn’t satisfied with an answer yet. “And the interesting ensemble that you learn more about little by little, their interactions; you know, their secrets. I like a good mystery, even if I never figure things out on my own.”
Marcy remembered this memory so vividly because it was the first time Peter had touched her. She jumped in surprise when he put a hand on her shoulder and said, “If you could figure it out on your own, it wouldn’t be a good mystery.”
With no furniture left in the room, it looked significantly larger than before. Peter hit a few more buttons on the control panel and the whir of four large vacuum robots starting up from the far wall echoed in the empty space as they made their way across the apartment. Each one had two large, rotating broom arms on either side that swept and corralled dust into a central compartment as they moved, which allowed the whole apartment to be swept and cleaned in a quick, single pass.
“A mystery,” Peter announced to the group. “One that keeps us all guessing.”
When the robots returned to their starting points — four cubbies in the far wall, which clicked closed as each entered — Peter hit a few more buttons on the house controls and then latched the panel closed.
Trish squealed, then turned away from the group to excitedly watch hundreds of small, square columns individually raising out of the floor all around the room. As more and more columns rose, many began to connect and cluster to take the vague shapes of furniture.
Nearest to the group, two blocks of material that resembled couches formed facing the wall where the bookshelves had once been. Past the couches, a four-seater table was accompanied by what looked like kindergarteners would draw chairs as. On the other side of the room, a much larger table took shape with no chairs, and past it, a desk appeared in a space surrounded by freestanding bookshelves. Lounge chairs — or, at least, the physical manifestation of a rough sketch of them — were scattered around the whole space, with one or two lining the edges of most areas.
Marcy watched in awe and wondered by Appleton had been so vehemently against this technology. It was new, sure, but also had an undeniable hint of magic in the way a space could be reformed at any time. She reasoned that Peter must not keep any permanent furniture in a home like this and thought of her brother back home, who worked two full-time jobs in carpentry and manufacturing yet still constantly struggled to each paycheck stretch to the next.
For a brief second, Marcy vibed with Mayor Luddite’s anathematization of the smart home revolution, if only for her brother’s jobs’ sake.
“Perfect shui,” Astelia whispered as the furniture continued taking shape, softening around the edges to transform from rough, blocky frames to softer, more welcoming shapes. As the chairs started looking more like chairs and the couches started looking more like the comfortable couches that were there when Marcy first arrived, more columns started to rise out of the floor between each space, eventually becoming walls with singular doors that separated each room completely.
“Any actor recommendations?” Peter asked, tentatively taking his first step out onto the floor that was now fading from red back to white.
“Ryan Shepard could be good in a mystery,” Trish noted.
“Yeah,” Jacob smirked, “if you only watch movies for the meat.”
“If we add Ryan, we’ve gotta add Natalya, too,” Astelia added. “We can’t pass up a dynamic duo when it’s staring us right in the face.”
The group followed Peter into the room with two couches. The lights dimmed while the wall they faced started to light up from a projector.
“I didn’t realize we were going so oldschool,” Caspar joked, raising an eyebrow at the wall. “Should I light some candles, too?”
“Great idea,” Peter retorted. He kneeled to the ground and took some candles from a hidden compartment in the floor and tossed them and a lighter to Caspar. “Lights out.”
Every light sans the projector went out. While the group of seven gasped to find themselves in a dim room with deep shadows, Marcy felt a stint of nostalgia for home, where she’d spent many nights of her childhood in the dark of poverty before her mom finally landed another job and pulled the family of three out of the depths.
She’d spent days at a time in the dark when the bills went unpaid, yet never adjusted to the sleep schedule one typically does when you solely rely on the sun to see. While her mother and brother would usually try to sleep a little after sundown, she’d spent her evenings and nights inside, meditating through every little thing she’d possibly need to accomplish to become rich — or at least self-sustaining — in five years’ time. Even with diligent thought and planning, it took her nearly twelve years before she’d saved up enough to make the move to San Francisco and suffer through necessary frugality.
Astelia brought Marcy back to the present with a compliment for her thrifted jacket. She pointed at her own — a well-worn, oversized denim jacket that hung almost to her knees — and admitted, “I’ve been wearing this one for years and it’s served me well, but sometimes I dream about a drastic change of appearance. It’s about time, you know?”
“Can we throw in Eastwood also?”
“What an odd choice for a mystery,” Jacob remarked.
“Everyone loves a dead actor,” Paul added.
“Sure we can,” Peter said, checking his phone. “Young or old?”
“Are there any where he’s young?” Marcy asked. Cult classics covered way more than mysteries and she loved a good Clint Eastwood movie. She’d streamed Unforgiven probably a hundred times and could quote almost every line, which she frequently did any time the situation arose.
“Speaking of meat,” Trish grinned.
“We can do any age,” Peter explained, brow raised. “because we’re making our own movie. You haven’t generated movies before?”
Marcy looked down. She was a long way from home in a stranger’s home with technology that may as well be alien to her, but she wasn’t about to admit that out loud.
“Oh, you’re in for a treat,” Peter smiled. “What’s your favorite Eastwood movie? We can generate a model for him based on his appearance in that movie and use it as an actor in ours. Forgive me, where did you say you were from again?”
“Unforgiven,” Marcy said, ignoring the latter question. “Great movie.”
“You got it,” Peter responded, looking at his phone. “Clint at 62, in his prime. Any other actors, anyone?”
The group named a couple of other actors and then had a brief discussion about what they liked and disliked about each actor, what movies they’d been in, and what they thought about those movies. It was the first long conversation that Marcy had had with anyone other than her cat Strudel in a very long time, and she would go on to remember it fondly for a good few weeks before the memory was corrupted with the impending truth of what was actually happening.
“I think that’s everything,” Peter said, motioning for the group to join him on the couches. The projector hummed softly from behind them, projecting a silent static onto the wall, ready to play.
“Don’t forget the stims,” Paul reminded, and Trish nodded excitedly.
“Oh yeah!” Caspar and Astelia cried out in unison. “What’s the flavor this month?”
“Ah, right,” Peter said, prancing over to another compartment in the wall. He retrieved a small, white bottle with a picture of a thin woman in severely oversized pants on the label. “Well, since it’s a mystery I’d recommend a stylene each: ups on wits, focus, memory, and persuasion; and downs on appetite, smell, emotion, and a slight loss of feeling in your hands.”
“That sounds perfect for a movie,” Jacob noted. “How long?”
“About three hours,” Peter noted, pointing at the bottle’s label as if everyone else could see it. “Perfect for a movie. One for everyone, yes?”