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Better than Reality

Hazel had five minutes to wait before she could harvest her raspberries. How sweet and mouth-watering those juicy red treasures appeared. And she was so very thirsty. She recalled there was a way to order drinks, like on holiday in Mozambique where she and a lover had lounged in deckchairs on the Tofo sand. Tanning her skin to beach babe brown, but ultimately the handbag leather it was now. What had his name been? She could remember faces, but names slipped through the gnarled fingers of her mind. Same as how the ordering of drinks was achieved.

Instead of fretting, she worried her chickens, startling them up in a flap of squawks and feathers. They always did that, no matter how accustomed to her they became. She must have collected their eggs earlier, because their hutches were empty, but it paid to be thorough. Her cows had already been milked, but she topped up their food troughs, just to be sure.

"I hope you're feeling well today Daisy," she said, rubbing one between its drag queen eyes. She called them all Daisy because she couldn't tell one from the other.

The prospect of bacon made her thirsty again, so she skipped the pig pen and found her cat, whom she tickled under the chin. It purred like an electric toothbrush and rubbed itself against her swollen ankles.

Alice next door at number fourteen had horses, which made Hazel jealous. She secretly hoped the old biddy would break her hip in a fall. Max, her neighbour in number ten with a face like a deflated balloon, kept a theme park. She could hear him late at night sometimes, whooping and hollering. She would report him, if she could remember how. He was always trying to talk Alice into going on his rides, but he never asked Hazel.

Her farm was the only thing that brought Hazel comfort these days. It was all she understood. She was good at managing it. Had turned a profit of a quarter million in the time she'd been tending it. Finally, she would have something to bequeath her grandchildren when she died.

A circuit of the farm brought her back to her raspberry bushes. Hazel licked her cracked lips and watched the clock count down the last seconds to their ripeness. It came as a mild surprise to find she couldn't eat them, only auction them off to the highest bidder. She made a tidy profit.

She considered putting more effort into ordering a drink, and some real food while she was about it. Perhaps after one more round of the farm. It gave her so much pleasure to see it thriving.

Her tongue swelled and cracked before she died. But she wore a contented smile beneath her Better Than Reality head set.

Olive spoke to her granddaughter via video call as she was wheeled into the home, down a corridor of closed doors. "It's fabulous, Darling," the old lady was saying. "Wait till you see the dining hall. It's so clean, you'd think no one ever ate in there. You'd love it Darling. The staff are just delightful. It's fabulous. They give you your very own headset when you move in. And all the games you could wish for. Can you believe a room came up? The wait on this place is longer than there've been roadworks on Constitution Avenue."

"They've finished that now, Gran," came the reply from the head and shoulders on the screen. "Remember when I last came to visit? It was much quicker getting into town."

"The best part is that it's all for free. They only take a cut of your estate after you're gone—like a tax. And there's nothing stopping me spending all my money before I die." Olive let out a gleeful giggle. "Who knows how they turn a profit?"

"Well, I hope it's as good as you say," the head and shoulders said, looking askance at something off screen. "I have to go now; the kids are up to something—it's far too quiet. We'll come up and see you Sunday week."

"Did I tell you about the dining room, Darling?"

"Yes Gran. Keep well now."

As the screen went blank, the orderly pushed Olive's wheelchair up to the door.

"Here you go," he said, stretching over her to reach the handle. "There's a button on the arm of the bed. Just buzz if you need anything. Otherwise we won't disturb you."

"Oh, number twelve," she said, reading the gilded lettering on the door. "My lucky number."

About the Author
Thomas Pask is a British/Australian physicist currently living in Brunei with his wife and daughter. His fictional work has appeared in Outposts of Beyond and Aurora Wolf. His other publications have all been scientific journal articles. You can follow his tweets at @thomas_pask.