Return Policy
by Ai Jiang

2,824 words

On her way home, Jolin stopped by a digibookstore with a large 50% off sale sign hanging behind thin glass. It glowed and dimmed in gradient orange and blue to catch customers' attention. Jolin's eyes drifted to the display of digibooks below the sign—clear glass screens with illuminating covers. The selections were different each day.

         

1000 Coins. Jolin choked on her sharp intake of breath. Even at 50% off, the price was hard to swallow. She felt the loose Coins in her pocket. She had maybe five at most.

         

Jolin's eyes snapped away from the digibooks when two boys sauntered through the front entrance, the glass doors sliding aside at their presence. Their laughter halted when they spotted Jolin. After sharing a look, the taller boy with the blonde hair, a stark contrast to Jolin's black, approached her. His chin tilted upwards, his eyes downcast, not in shyness but with an air of arrogance. By instinct, Jolin's shoulders drew inwards as the boy squared his own, compressing herself in hopes of being invisible. Her fingers closed tighter around her Coins.

         

Her father only made 1000 Coins a month and her mother only half that. Most of her parents' income went to rent and her schooling, though they could only afford a lesser-known local academy. Jolin didn't mind, rather she was more than appreciative since her parents didn't have formal schooling themselves. At least the knowledge she was allowed to download at the academy after each lesson was permanent, even though the school was lacking overall in database resources.

         

"You," said the boy.

         

She looked away, taking an interest in the neon lights lining the edges of the sidewalk, flicking like the On Sale sign on display but also like the Caution sign at the construction site her father worked at.

         

"You know about the Seventh Global Reformation Movement?" he asked.

         

Jolin's eyes moved from the lights, drawn to the boy's forehead, almost as though she could see the knowledge churning inside, made possible only by his purchase. Which digibook did he buy? The 1000 Coins one that only covered the introductory parts of the Movement? The 2000 Coins one that covered half of it? Or did he get the 5000 Coins one that covered the entire thing?

         

"I've heard of it . . ." said Jolin.

         

"But you haven't got it downloaded." A statement rather than a question.

         

The boy threw a smirk to his friend.

         

"Looks like we've got ourselves a wannabe scholar."

         

As the boy and his friend left, Jolin noticed the boy turned back around for a moment, looking between her and the display.

 

* * *

 

"Will you go to the party tonight?" Jolin's friend, Amanda asked.

         

Jolin shook her head. She knew the boy from earlier would be there although he didn’t go to their school. His name always escaped her, but it didn't matter since he didn't bother learning hers anyhow.

         

"You can't just keep avoiding all the parties. How are you going to network otherwise? There might be sons and daughters with connections to the universities there!" Amanda was near the top of the school, not solely with the help of her parents' wealth. But unlike Jolin, she'd have no problem making it into a university, with or without her high grades.

         

"I just don't see a point. I won't have anything to talk about," Jolin replied, thinking about how Amanda could flit between topics with each person she spoke to, always finding knowledge on their interests to make conversation.

         

"But you'll be with me," Amanda said, her eyes pleading.

         

Jolin shook her head again. "You know they always end up noticing how I never speak. I don't want you to always speak for me, you know?" She appreciated her friend's efforts to help, but this wasn't something Amanda seemed to understand.

         

"Fine. But you'll come get me after?" Amanda offered a timid small which Jolin returned.

         

"Always."

 

* * *

 

Jolin arrived at the party when there were only a few stragglers left on the lawn of a four-story house and spotted Amanda leaning against the frame of the front door, hammering the bottom of her palm into her head. She never failed to overdo it at these events. No doubt she exhausted all her brain power trying to keep others entertained. Now she was knowledge drunk, as usual, not being able to access some of the most basic information—like walking, clearly.

         

"Amanda!" Jolin called.

         

Her friend's head popped up, still bobbing to a rhythm that only she herself could hear. Jolin began making her way over but paused when the boy from behind came up next to Amanda, a hand at her elbow.

         

"Why don't you tell her what we've been talking about," the boy whispered. Behind him, a girl with a lopsided smirk glared at Jolin, arms crossed.

         

"I—" Amanda whimpered. The boy's nails dug into her elbow. "You're no longer friends, is what she's trying to say," the girl said, pushing past the boy and Amanda. "You can go now, Empty."

Jolin flinched at the nickname they gave to those who couldn't afford to purchase much knowledge outside of what was given, allowed, at school.

         

Jolin turned and left.

         

Later that night, Amanda texted, but Jolin turned off her phone and slept through the graduation ceremony that took place the next day, having convinced her parents she was far too ill to attend.

         

Amanda never called or texted again.


* * *

 

During summer, on the day when Jolin and Amanda had promised to celebrate Jolin's birthday by going to their favorite restaurant, Jolin was at home. She wondered if Amanda already received her university acceptance letter. She herself would be taking a gap year. School was too draining anyhow, and the tuition money would be better spent elsewhere, at least that was what she tried to convince herself.

         

"Jolin."

         

Jolin looked her to see her mother and father edging into the room with both hands behind their backs.

         

"We know it's nothing much, but . . ."

 

With one hand held tight on each side, her parents lowered a digilibrary card. The card wasn't quite like a Coin card, but it was far more valuable to Jolin than the potential debt she knew might accumulate by withdrawing Coin credit.

         

Though excitement welled up within her, carrying her—light as floating feathers—down the street towards the digilibrary, Jolin couldn't help but stop in front of the bookstore again. New selections were on display with a 70% off sale sign floating above. The tag flashed in attempts to appeal, but today, it only made Jolin wince.

         

She tore herself from the front of the display and continued down the street.

         

When Jolin arrived at the digilibrary, the digilibrarian guided her to the history section. Jolin walked past the local digilibrary a number of times, but she never stopped by outside like she did with the bookstore. The digibooks inside weren't permanent.

         

A digilibrary card required a monthly subscription of 50 Coins. Her parents had enough to spare for three months, but that was more than enough for Jolin.

         

A large screen, stretching from wall to wall, sat under a digital sign, with glowing green letters that said, "HISTORY." It reminded Jolin of the bookstore display, although it didn't flash. Her eyes followed a small arrow at the bottom, pointing to the digilibrary's rules, tucked in a corner as though hoping to remain hidden, not wanting to break the illusion of unlimited knowledge.

 

Rules For Borrowing:

 

1.  Up to ten digibooks can be downloaded to an individual's mind system at one time.

 

2.  Renewals must be requested five days before the thirty-day borrowing time limit. Only one renewal is allowed per year.

 

Return Policy:

 

1.  Once the thirty-day limit has passed, digibooks will be automatically wiped from the borrower's mind system.

 

The word "deleted" lingered as Jolin signed the agreement and began selecting her digibooks. She needed to choose wisely, since only ten were allowed at a time. After careful selection, Jolin requested to download the maximum number of digibooks, choosing ones that touched on the periods ranging from the 2000s to current day. Hopefully the Seventh Global Movement was included—sometimes the digibooks omitted certain information depending on the author. They never brought this up in school before, but Jolin always noticed.

         

When she pressed the "Borrow" button on the screen, political, social, cultural events flooded her mind, and she devoured each as images and text flashed across her shut eyelids.

         

The Seventh Global Reformation Movement, to Jolin's dismay, only made up a handful of pages in a few of the books. But she was now certain, things had been different during that period—people knew more, and without cost. But the wealthy didn't like that. It wasn't explicit in the text, but Jolin understood what these authors had all hidden in-between the lines. At the conclusion of each section that included the Seventh Global Reformation Movement, there was always a note that said the movement had failed—just like the books on the First to Sixth Global Reformation Movement. Yet rather than seeing it as a detriment, the authors praised the failure as a success. There was no need to change, they’d note. Society—the world, as it were—would flourish if it remained the same. Jolin couldn't help but wonder if that was really true. And if it was, why did the world keep trying to change?

 

Jolin spent days in her room navigating through the digibooks she borrowed and exchanged from the library every few days, consuming ten books each day, always hoping she'd stumble upon new information about the SGFM. But she never did. Nonetheless, with the accumulating knowledge, Jolin felt a deep sense of joy grow within her. This must have been how Amanda and the boy and that girl felt on a daily basis. There was such a fullness, such power, being able to draw on so much, knowing so much. She wondered if she should try going to one of those parties now. Maybe.

 

* * *

 

She arrived at the doorstep of the boy's house. His name was Henson, from what she figured through her social media search. The doorbell sounded like death tolls as she waited with sweaty palms for someone, anyone, to open the door, hoping they wouldn't look through the peep hole and ignore her altogether.

         

"Welco—" It was Amanda.

         

Her ex-best friend's face blanched.

         

"Jolin, what—"

         

"Look who it is," Henson said, slinging an arm over Amanda's shoulder. His tone was coy, snarky, but his eyes were both curious and cautious.

         

Jolin's lips remained immobile. She intended to show up and spew the knowledge she had in his face—show him that she too was just like them now.

         

No words came.

         

And with a horrifying realization, Jolin noticed the knowledge had disappeared from her system, wiped completely. She'd forgotten to renew the digibooks in her anxiety and nervousness leading up to the party.

         

Jolin sputtered, lowered her head, then fled. Henson's bolstering laughter and Amanda’s uncomfortable chuckle followed her down the street. But behind Henson’s laughter, there was a strange sense of sympathy, a hitching discomfort that caused it to waver—briefly—that confused Jolin and kept her up later that night. She wondered if Henson was truly as terrible as she first thought him to be. And she wondered if Henson might actually be different from Amanda after all.

 

In bed, Jolin felt the last of her fleeting moments of happiness deflate, leaving a familiar emptiness. She racked her mind in agitated desperation, attempting to recall what she read the past month, trying to conjure the images and events that blurred no matter how vivid they were only seconds ago.

         

Jolin's panic soon faded into disappointment.

 

* * *

 

When fall arrived, Amanda and the others started university, but Jolin picked up a job at a local restaurant—her and Amanda's favorite, or what used to be their favorite. She wanted to work at the local library, or at least volunteer. But an official position required a degree she didn't have, and she couldn't afford to spend her time only volunteering. Maybe when she saved enough.

         

She walked past the bookstore after work and paused. Behind the selection display, Henson was exiting from a room in the back of the store. Jolin could only imagine the obscure possibilities of why he might be coming from the mysterious room. Perhaps he worked part-time. Yet, Jolin’s deduction was brought into question when Henson met Jolin’s gaze through the glass display, as though he already knew she was there, as though he wanted her to notice him and the room.

         

"Well, hello there, again." Jolin flinched, not noticing that leaning next to the automatic entrance was a woman with a complexion like worn leather, a green and orange flour scarf wrapped around her long neck. The woman patted the back of her head, though there was not a single hair standing out of place from her tight, jet-black bun. "I see you looking at the displays every time you pass by," she said, her eyes flitting to the glass display before meeting Jolin's gaze again.

         

Jolin looked away quickly, feeling intimidated. Behind the display, Henson was nowhere in sight. Looking down, Jolin clasped her hands in front of her, wringing her fingers. Then she nodded.

         

"Why don't you ever come in?" the woman asked, intrigued. Jolin caught sight of the woman bowing her head to look at her. Jolin then looked up quickly, not wanting to be an inconvenience.

         

"I need to rush home," Jolin said, her voice quick and just above a whisper.

         

The woman snorted, startling Jolin. "You always stand outside for a long time. I doubt you’re in much of a hurry."

         

Jolin felt the heat creep up her face then ducked her head in embarrassment.

         

"Come in," the woman said, waving a hand towards the shop. She turned without another word, not checking to see if Jolin followed. "The name's Ayanu, by the way," the woman called over her shoulder before the glass door slid closed behind her.

         

Jolin was sure the woman knew she couldn't afford anything in her shop. It was such a strange invitation. None of the owners of other stores had ever asked Jolin to come in—not that she wanted them to—even if she stood outside for hours.

         

After several deep breaths, Jolin followed Ayanu. She paused in front of the glass entrance, closing her eyes unconsciously. Icy air sliced across her cheeks, tickling her lips. She had never felt air so cold in the summer; it was always sweltering in her house during the warmer months.

         

Near the check-out desk, Jolin noticed the digibook that featured Seventh Global Reformation Movement, among other events, on display. Her mind struggled, prodded, desperately trying to remember what she had read previously but came up with nothing.

         

Ayanu swiped through a tablet in front of her and without looking said, "Choose any one you want. I can spare one a month, if you'd like?" Then Ayanu looked up. "Free, of course."

         

Jolin’s head snapped to Ayanu so quick she thought her head would whip off. One a month was more than enough, but . . .

         

"Why—"

         

"Not everyone can afford it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to access it." Ayanu shook her head. "The laws aren't very kind to us, are they?" A sad smile quirked her tanned lips.

         

Jolin agreed in silence, thinking of Amanda. It wasn't fair, but what could she do?

         

Then, Ayanu looked around, ducked her head. In a lowered voice, she said, "Perhaps if they had an eighth movement . . ."

         

Jolin met Ayanu's eyes, her own widening.

         

The older woman waved Jolin towards the back room she'd seen Henson come out of after checking the security cameras on the screen at the check-out table. At first, it seemed like an empty room. But as soon as the door closed behind them, the older woman tapped a strange rhythmic pattern against the wall. In seconds, the walls slid upwards in silence, revealing digital catalog displays of books she had never seen within the store. Jolin wondered how Ayanu was able to keep it all from detection.

         

"How . . ."

         

Ayanu held a hand to her lips, chuckling. "Now pick one before I change my mind!"

         

Jolin's eyes drifted to Seventh Global Reformation Movement. 5000 pages. It wasn't only a brief section, a short feature.

 

Jolin paused before her index finger drifted, hovering over the digibook.

         

"Good choice," Ayanu said, her voice quiet.

 

 

When Jolin left the store, Henson was walking towards her. His gaze was calculating, analyzing—a prodding question. Jolin slowed her step, smiled at him as she passed. And after a moment, he knowingly smiled back.

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, Pseudopod, Prairie Fire, Hobart Pulp, The Masters Review—among others. Find her on Twitter @AiJiang_ and online at the site aijiang.ca.