SHORT STORY 1
Title: True Beauty
Author: Nicola Prentis
Steph was looking at Instagram. There were #blessed yoga photos and #SundayBreakfast pictures. She saw photos of fresh bread and coffee with hearts in the milk.
On the other side of the city, Matt was doing the same thing. His Instagram was full of #FitBody gym selfies and #beachlife holiday photos.
Steph put some flowers next to her breakfast and took a photo of it. Her eggs and coffee were cold now, but the plate looked good. The plate was from an expensive art market. She had ‘borrowed’ the flowers from her neighbour’s garden. Probably only ten people a day walked past old Mrs Robinson’s garden. Flowers are for everyone to enjoy, aren’t they? she thought. If she put the picture on Instagram, more people would see the flowers.
Steph changed the colours on her picture to make the orange juice more orange and the pink roses brighter. She was choosing an Instagram filter when she noticed TrueBeauty. She had downloaded it the day before and then forgotten about it. Her picture looked perfect with that filter. She posted the photo for her 15k followers. She hoped some of them would feel jealous of her life. Then she threw the food on her plate into the bin. She didn’t want to eat it now that it was cold.
Matt was ready to give up. He had worked out for an hour and he had put cooking oil on his skin so that it would look shiny. But the photos still didn’t look good. He only wanted to be fit so that he could put photos on social media. He looked at his Instagram again. He hoped to see some ideas he could copy. Then he noticed an ad for TrueBeauty.
Pictures as beautiful as you are. See the real you with TrueBeauty. Available in your app store for £0. Because True Beauty is free. That’s what he needed. He downloaded the app. In minutes, he had the perfect selfie.
In the photos, his body looked amazing. He posted the photo for his 27k followers. Then he got in the shower to wash off all the cooking oil. He remembered reading about all the fat under the city, in the sewers. Millions of people lived in his city. Most of them washed their cooking oil down the
sink. The oil went to the sewers. It made a disgusting mess and some poor workers had to clean it. Or did the oil go into the ocean and kill dolphins? He couldn’t remember. But it wasn’t his problem, was it? It was someone else’s problem.
Both Steph and Matt were surprised to get so few likes. And they weren’t prepared for the negative comments they received. susieQ Remind me never to get breakfast at your place! gymguy21 Ewww, disgusting!
The rest of the comments were even worse. Both social media influencers looked again at the pictures they had posted. Steph’s picture showed horrible, green eggs with flies all over them. The flowers were dead, and the coffee looked disgusting and grey. In Matt’s picture, his body was covered in something that looked like dirty butter. It was in his hair and in his nose. And, worst of all, his hands were really dirty. It looked as if he had been digging in the garden – or worse.
They both tried to delete the photos, but they couldn’t. The negative comments kept coming. In a way, it was Steph’s most popular post. And 50 people had shared Matt’s post already. Just then, everyone who had installed the TrueBeauty filter received a message from the person who had created it. Steph and Matt read:
Thank you for making TrueBeauty such an amazing success! Fifty million downloads in the first 24 hours! Wow, it’s more than I ever hoped for. Honestly, guys, I am so #blessed. I know that each of you really, truly cares about showing yourself as you really are. Are you as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside? If you want your pictures to show the real you, it’s time to be as beautiful in real life as you are on your social media. Have a truly beautiful day, beautiful people!
PS. You can’t remove the filter or delete the pictures you posted using it. #SorryNotSorry PPS. By the way, after the first time you use TrueBeauty, it will change all your photos from that moment on!
For the next 24 hours, not many people posted photos online. There was only one-way people could see if the filter was still destroying their photos: they had to post pictures first and then see how they looked. The results were not pretty.
A few of the biggest influencers offered a reward. They joined together to offer a million pounds for the first person to remove the filter. But they couldn’t post a picture of themselves holding the money because the pictures were so ugly. So they had to stop advertising the reward. It didn’t matter anyway. The person who developed TrueBeauty was too clever and no one could remove the filter
Steph stopped trying to take pictures after five more horrible pictures. She couldn’t remove the TrueBeauty filter. The only thing she could do to hide the ugly pictures was to make her account private. Now, no one could see anything she had ever posted in her life. She felt depressed. She didn’t want to do anything if she couldn’t post photos of it.
She went downstairs, past Mrs Robinson’s garden. The flowers were more beautiful than ever. She noticed the smell for the first time. Lovely! She stopped and smelled a large, purple rose. ‘Hello,’ said Mrs Robinson. Steph was surprised because she didn’t know Mrs Robinson was there.
‘Oh, sorry!’ said Mrs Robinson. ‘I was just putting water on the plants. At this time of year, there’s always so much to do.’ Steph looked around. She hadn’t realised it was hard work to make a garden look nice. In fact, she had never really spoken to Mrs Robinson.
She had a new thought. ‘Do you want some help?’ Steph asked. After all, she didn’t have anything else to do. ‘Oh, thank you, dear! That would be lovely!’ Mrs Robinson looked delighted. Steph actually felt happy for the first time since the whole TrueBeauty nightmare had started.
A couple of hours later, to be honest, Steph didn’t think the garden looked very different. But Mrs Robinson said she had been a great help. Steph had enjoyed herself a lot. Mrs Robinson had been an actor in the past and she had some amazing stories to tell.
‘Take a picture of us, dear,’ said Mrs Robinson as Steph was leaving. ‘One of those selfies everyone loves.’
Steph almost said no. What could she do with photos now? But Mrs Robinson would be happy with an ordinary picture. Steph supposed she could take one. She took a quick picture of the two of them. They were standing together in front of the roses, smiling and looking a little bit shiny and hot.
Later that evening she looked at the picture on her phone. She changed the colours a little bit. But the roses looked beautiful anyway, with or without any changes. And nothing could improve the smiles on her and Mrs Robinson’s faces.
That’s a really beautiful picture, she thought. It’s a shame TrueBeauty will destroy it if I post it. But then she had a thought. She went back and read TrueBeauty’s message again.
And then she posted her picture. When the picture went online, it looked exactly the same! She made her account public again. Then she added some text to the photo. Me and my neighbour in her garden #TrueBeauty
One of Steph’s followers, Matt, saw her photo. At first, he was just pleased to see a nice photo for a change. He hadn’t been to the gym for two days. He supposed he was kind of depressed.
Maybe he felt bad because he hadn’t exercised. Or maybe it was because of all the horrible, ugly photos he’d seen. Then he had an idea as he read @Steph’s post. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but it was worth trying. He picked up all the paper, plastic and glass in his house. He put it into three different piles. Then
SHORT STORY 2
Title: The Devil in Details
Author: Nicola Prentis
The knock at her front door came just as Victoria was about to open it, even though, strangely, she’d heard neither the lift nor anyone on the stairs. She balanced on one foot while she put on her other shoe, slipping on piles of unopened bills. She was late to work for the third time this month and now she had a visitor. Great.
She opened the door and forced her mouth into a smile she hoped said, ‘I’d love to chat, but sorry I can’t!’. ‘And how are we today, Victoria?’ the man at her door asked. ‘Good, I hope! If not, I bring you an eternity of warmth and best wishes from the wonderful director of my company.’ Victoria’s smile vanished. How did he know her name?
‘You know how I can be so sure? I am the wonderful director of my company!’ he said, winking. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Victoria. ‘I’m in a rush. I’m late for work.’ ‘Time!’ He clicked his tongue. ‘That’s what they all want. Time or happiness, which one would you like more of?’
‘Listen, really,’ said Victoria, ‘I’m not interested, sorry.’
‘We’ve got a special offer on,’ he replied. ‘Twenty-five years of extra life in exchange for eternity. Or,’ he smiled widely, ‘double your happiness for the same price.’
‘Price?’ she repeated, despite it being far from the strangest part of his sentence. ‘Yes, it’s a fixed price, no hidden charges. We take everything you have – forever.’
It was strange that he was wasting his precious selling time on talking nonsense. ‘Then I want fifty extra years or four times more happiness,’ she joked.
‘Oh, you could. But I have to warn you, the quality of the years after the standard twenty-five isn’t always as high. I’d go for happiness.’
He pushed the lift button for her. Of course, it was obvious, at this time of day, dressed for work, that she was about to go down. OK, so her shirt wasn’t ironed because she hadn’t had time and her very important-looking briefcase actually contained sandwiches for lunch because she couldn’t afford to join her colleagues eating out for lunch.
Plus, she worked through her breaks, desperately trying to find extra time for all the work she had to do. One day, she’d get her dream job – just as soon as she knew what that was.
Sometimes Victoria felt as if her sister had all the luck in the family. Not only did she run her own award-winning publishing company, she’d married an equally talented man, the gorgeous and funny Peter, whose only fault was not having a twin. Even the way they met sounded like the plot of a film. Charlotte had been having a run of bad luck, ending in a car accident that had threatened
to leave her unable to walk. Peter, a new doctor at the hospital, had to perform several risky operations that they had thought wouldn’t work, but she was back on her feet within weeks. Even he joked that he hadn’t known he was such a good surgeon. He proposed two months later.
Half a year after the accident, Charlotte had set up her company and now they lived in the most expensive part of London. Victoria tried not to be jealous of her sister for any of it – not the husband, not the successful business, not their beautiful house nor their children – but it was a level of happiness that she wished she could taste for herself.
Thinking about Charlotte’s accident reminded her how impossible it was to know what might happen. ‘But what if I get run over by a bus tomorrow?’
‘Then you’ll have been blissfully happy for that one day. Time or happiness, I can only offer one. I’m not a miracle worker. That’s another company.’
He winked again.
‘Well, maybe you should change jobs,’ she said and pressed the lift button herself. He shook his head. ‘I’ve tried them. Their sales team has quite a different approach. Be miserable now, then happy for eternity. It has its appeal but, honestly, it’s a much harder sell.’
The lift wasn’t even moving. She turned towards the stairs. ‘Late’ didn’t begin to describe the time she would get to work. But as she started down the stairs, she suddenly remembered something. ‘Damn!’ she swore. She hadn’t picked up her little nieces’ birthday presents. There wasn’t time to go back and get them now. Angela and Gabriella’s perfect birthday party would be minus two messily wrapped presents from their imperfect auntie. One day they’d be old enough to wonder how their mother could be related to Victoria.
‘It’s time, isn’t it, Victoria. I can always tell,’ he called after her. ‘Even if I believed this ridiculous stuff you’re saying, I don’t have time to discuss it with you …’
She broke off, annoyed with herself for admitting she needed more time, and then let out a little scream as he slid down the banister and suddenly appeared in front of her, floating in the air with his arms and legs crossed.
‘Then it’s happiness!’ he said, scratching one of two little horns that she now noticed on either side of his head.
Victoria pulled her hand off the banister and put her other hand against the wall so she wouldn’t fall. She caught her nails on the rough bricks, feeling two of them break where they joined the skin. The pain made her scream again, but she didn’t stop to look now she was sure who he was.
‘I’m happy enough, thanks,’ she said, with as much strength in her voice as she could while running down the stairs with two bleeding fingers. ‘Are you happy, Victoria?’ he asked as he continued sliding down the banister with her. ‘Of course, you love your job, however low paid it is and never mind the fact that your boss hates you because you’re never on time. You’ll find the rent somehow, you always do. So resourceful.’
‘You can’t know that!’ she shouted. ‘Anyway, money doesn’t buy happiness! It’s the root of all evil.’ ‘True, Victoria, true. Very wise. It’s love that makes the world go round.’
‘Exactly!’ she said, winning a point finally. Five more floors to go. ‘I’m sure one day you’ll meet someone …’ he said. ‘I don’t need a man to be happy, so if that’s all you’ve got in your happy bag …’ ‘So wise, Victoria,’ he continued. ‘So few people realise happiness comes from within, not from material things or other people. I see you’re cleverer than many of our customers. Twenty-five years extra, then. I can see it in you, Victoria. You won’t waste them.’ ‘Twenty-five on top of what, though?’
‘No, no, no.’ He turned the final corner with her. ‘I won’t tell you how long you would have lived, because then you’ll know how long you’ve got left. We’ve tried that before. People just ruin it for themselves. It’s in the small print but I wouldn’t read that if I were you.’ ‘I don’t believe in this stuff. Or in you!’
He jumped off the banister and bowed, holding something small and white out to her. ‘Neither did your sister,’ he said. ‘Not until she had her accident. My card if you change your mind.’ And he disappeared, leaving Victoria with the card in her hand and her mouth open in shock.
SHORT STORY 3
Title: Love Me, Love Me Not
Author: Nicola Prentis
Kate looked around the room at the other participants: ten men and ten women all around the same age.
‘Thank you for coming today and offering your time to help advance medicine! Limeren, the medicine we’re testing, is in what we call the Phase 4 stage, which means previous human trials have shown us the drug is completely safe …’
Kate stopped paying attention. She’d read the information the medical research company had sent her so she knew the vitamin tablets, Limeren, had already been approved for sale and that they were just fine-tuning now, not testing side effects. She didn’t know any of the other people in the group.
Presumably, none of them had jobs either or they wouldn’t have signed up to a medical study to earn money. But otherwise it was impossible to know if she had anything in common with any of them. She hoped so, or it was going to feel like a very long four days stuck in the hospitallike research centre.
known side effects are that some people experience heightened emotions and psychological states as well as a feeling of general well-being,’ the lead researcher finished off his presentation. ‘We’ll be interviewing each of you and taking standard physical tests through the day and night. So if you can all sign the consent forms, we can get started.’
Kate signed and dated her form without reading the information. Hopefully, this was going to be the easiest money she ever made.
‘I hope the food’s better than last time,’ said the guy sitting next to her as he handed in his form. Kate smiled. ‘I’m Michael.’ ‘Kate,’ she said. ‘You’ve been here before?’
‘As often as they’ll let me!’ He laughed. ‘Easiest money I ever made.’ She smiled back. Someone she had something in common with after all.
A few hours later, eating dinner and having taken her second dose of Limeren that day, Kate couldn’t deny she felt extra relaxed. Maybe it was the drug, or maybe it was just being in a place where nothing was expected of her. There were books to read, films to watch and even board games and puzzles.
It was nothing like her normal days, sending job application after job application and going to stressful interviews that never led to a job. She looked up and saw Michael smiling at her. ‘Fancy playing a board game?’ he asked. His eyes were such a deep shade of brown, Kate thought. She couldn’t think why she hadn’t noticed earlier.
To her annoyance, she felt her cheeks going red. ‘Sure,’ she replied. ‘I’m very competitive, though,’ she warned. ‘Perfect,’ he said. ‘Me too!’ Was it her imagination or did his cheeks look a bit pink too?
For the next two days, Kate and Michael hung out all the time, playing games, chatting and watching films.
‘I feel as if I’ve known you for months, not days,’ she said. She already knew he lived not far away, that he was a student studying for his PhD and that he had dimples in his cheeks when he smiled and a cute way of putting a pen behind his ear when he was reading. She couldn’t be completely certain, but she thought he seemed to be making sure he sat next to her for meals and hung out with her whenever he could. Or maybe she was the one who was always looking for him.
‘So, do you think you’re feeling any side effects?’ he asked her one evening. They were sitting on the sofa, watching a film. Michael’s knee was almost touching her leg, and if his hand moved even a tiny bit, it would be touching hers. Her heart beat faster and all she could think about was closing the gap and feeling his skin touch hers. She was blushing again, she knew it. ‘Any what?’ she asked, forcing her mind back to the conversation.
‘The side effects of Limeren that they told us about at the presentation,’ he said, moving his hand away. Her skin immediately felt cold, as if the presence of his hand had been warming the air between them.
‘Oh, I was only half-listening,’ she said. ‘We still get paid anyway though, right?’ And then he did it. He moved his hand so that it covered hers. A warm feeling went all the way through her fingers and across her skin. She turned her hand over and held his hand. He smiled and leaned towards her slightly.
‘Can everyone line up for their evening dose of Limeren, please?’ called a nurse. Michael dropped her hand and followed the rest of the group to the nurse’s room. Kate couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.
‘Thank you, everyone, for taking part in this trial. You’re now free to go,’ the lead researcher said the next morning as the trial ended. ‘Any side effects will wear off over the next few days. Those of you who have experienced strong feelings, emotions and happiness will find that the feelings lessen but we don’t expect anyone to become depressed. However, we will follow up with all of you in the next few days to make sure everything is fine.’
‘We can have our first date now,’ Michael said to Kate. ‘Breakfast?’ Over breakfast, they talked and talked. Kate knew she was in love. It was stupid, but it was true. Michael said it first.
‘I can’t believe I met you. I’ve never felt like this about anyone before.
This does feel amazing,’ Kate said. And then a quiet worry that she had been ignoring became too loud to ignore.
‘You don’t think …?’
‘What if it’s the Limeren making us feel like this? What was it he said about heightened emotions?’
‘There’s only one way to find out!’ Michael said. ‘If you don’t want to be my girlfriend any more after a few days, we’ll know it was just the Limeren.’
She felt herself melt at the word ‘girlfriend’. ‘Maybe your side effects will wear off first!’ ‘Maybe!’ He laughed. ‘But I don’t think so. This feels real to me.’
‘Me too,’ she said.
Four months later Looking back, a few months later, Kate had to admit, nothing was ever going to be as perfect as those first days together. Eventually, real life had to interrupt. She got a job a few days after the trial ended and he went back to the library and his books and research projects. It was the end of her money worries but also the end of spending all day, every day together and all the excitement of falling in love. But still, they saw each other when they could and met each other’s parents.
Everyone expected them to get married, and when he finally produced a ring and asked her to marry him, she felt that old excitement again.
Three years later
‘You do it!’ Kate shouted. She hated doing the weekly shopping. Why couldn’t he do it? ‘I will, but I can’t go right now, I’m sorry,’ Michael said quietly. He never shouted, but sometimes Kate found his quiet patience irritating.
‘Fine, I’ll go then,’ she said, slamming the door. Kate felt as if these kinds of arguments were happening more often. As she walked around the supermarket, she thought about how they’d been before, when they were in love. ‘Can it ever feel like that again?’ she wondered.
Walking into the health section, she spotted a word she recognised on the shelves. Limeren. The vitamin’s name reminded her of a time she was really crazy about Michael. She picked up a box and put it in her basket.
When she got home, Michael was already in bed so she ate dinner alone, taking her Limeren tablet with a big glass of water. The next morning, she woke up early as usual, but instead of jumping straight in the shower, she joined Michael downstairs for breakfast.
‘Good morning!’ she said, feeling a sudden desire to kiss him on the cheek as she sat down next to him at the table. He was eating in front of a big pile of books, looking cute with a pen behind his ear. ‘What are you working on?’
‘I’m writing a grant application for my next research project,’ he said. ‘Oh, good luck! What’s the project about?’
After breakfast, she reflected on how nice it had been to see him talking about his passions. She’d forgotten how cute his dimples were when he smiled, she thought. Or maybe she hadn’t seen him smile much recently. Anyway, she decided to have breakfast with him every day, since it had been such a lovely start to the day. It couldn’t hurt to make a bit more effort, could it?
Two years later
The baby hadn’t stopped crying for two hours, but now she was calm, her little face peaceful as she slept. Kate sighed with annoyance. Where was Michael? She walked out of the bedroom angrily and went downstairs to find him filling bottles with milk for the baby.
‘Well done!’ Michael said. ‘That didn’t sound easy.’
‘No!’ she said angrily. ‘It isn’t!’
‘You’re doing an amazing job,’ he said. ‘OK, so I’ve done all the laundry, made your lunch for later and arranged to come home early this afternoon so that you can have some time for yourself.’
Kate managed to smile and say thank you. He really was being very sweet, even if she was too tired to feel grateful or to be nice back. As soon as he had left for work, she reached for the box of Limeren. By the time he came home, even earlier than he’d promised, Kate’s smile matched his smile at seeing her.
One year later
Kate was putting clothes away while her daughter slept. She picked up one of Michael’s favourite jumpers and held the soft fabric next to her cheek. She missed him and he had only been out an hour. Putting it back, she noticed something hard underneath the rest of the jumpers in the drawer.
The something turned out to be boxes and boxes of Limeren.
She was shocked to see them even though, by now, she took Limeren every day. And every day she felt madly in love with her wonderful husband. She thought of it as a quick way to those feelings she’d always had for Michael. Everyone said marriage was hard work and she just didn’t have the time or energy to work at love as well as her part-time job and a young baby.
She found that when she took the tablets, she made more effort at all those small gestures that made their life together nice. If he did something nice for her, she said thank you, but most of all she actually felt thankful. She paid him compliments and noticed things about him.
She asked him about his day and remembered things that were important to him. She’d seen nothing wrong with the shortcut. Until now, that is. Now she knew why he had always been so good at doing those same things for her. It was all fake!
Instead of being all smiles when Michael got home, she was angry. Clearly the Limeren only had a limited ability to make everything perfect. Her rose-tinted glasses were definitely off now. ‘What are all these?’ she asked, pointing to the Limeren packets she’d taken from the drawer and piled up on the kitchen table.
Michael moved closer to the boxes and tried to read the writing. ‘They’re vitamins, aren’t they?’ ‘Don’t act as if you’ve no idea why I’m asking!’ said Kate, angry he was acting innocent. ‘These boxes,’ she said dramatically, pointing to the pile again, ‘are our relationship.’ ‘Oh!’ he said. ‘It’s Limeren!’ ‘Yes, it’s Limeren,’ she said. ‘I know exactly what they are.’
He looked confused. ‘So why are you asking me what they are? I remember the name now you’ve said – from the place we met, right? – but I’ve not taken those for years.’ ‘What?’
‘I just … I don’t know. It’s better to get vitamins from fruit and vegetables, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘The medical trial company sent us a load of them years ago, but I put them away somewhere and forgot to throw them away. We eat a balanced enough diet so there’s no need to take vitamins.’
What about …’ She felt her voice getting louder and louder, but also something made her feel a slight doubt as she planned the words. It sounded ridiculous. ‘What about the falling in love part? The side effects! You’re always so wonderful and perfect, the ideal husband. And now I know
why!’ ‘Er … thanks?’ He laughed. ‘I know they told us there were some side effects, but we were just joking when we said we fell in love because of the tablets, weren’t we? Besides,’ he added, turning the box over in his hands, ‘they must have changed the ingredients or something because it
doesn’t say anything on the box anywhere about side effects. See?’ He held it out for her to look.
‘Maybe they changed the recipe after we did that trial. Who knows?’
He gave her a big hug. ‘This perfect husband is all natural, don’t worry.’
He went off upstairs to check on the baby and then she heard him banging pots and pans in the kitchen as he started to make dinner. She too examined the boxes and it was true. There was nothing written on the box about side effects, or even on the leaflet inside. The tablets were just vitamins after all. Limeren wasn’t a shortcut to love and it never had been.
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