He was called Brian and he walked among them.
Under a high bright sun and clear blue sky, Brian walked past the people in the busy city streets and noticed how their eyes followed him. It wasn’t until they lost sight of him that they wondered about their actions. Most of them eventually came to the same conclusion: it must have been his ultra-cool sunglasses.
Brian did not lay claim to any false hubris about his nonexistent charm or good looks. He was tall and gangly, his face and body bony and gaunt, and he still battled acne, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as in his depressing teen years. He knew the attention brought to him was solely because of the sunglasses. He knew what he really was: a walking advertisement.
He had to admit, however, that it was a great job!
Subliminal bubbles that only he could see burst above him in bold colors announcing the LATEST and GREATEST ULTRA-COOL SUNGLASSES! Each step he took caused a new micro-burst that lingered like sundogs on the inside lenses of his sunglasses.
It was addictive. He felt ultra-cool. He was ultra-cool. And, best of all, he got paid to be ultra-cool. Life was good.
Back home in his one-room apartment, exhausted from all his strutting, he collapsed across an old sofa too short for his lanky frame, dangling his feet off one end. He let his sunglasses fall off and stared blankly at the flickering high def images on his 32-inch wall-mounted flat screen HDTV.
Vegetate, he told himself. It was okay to vegetate.
A classic Foo Fighters ringtone interrupted his cathartic meditation. “The Pretender.” He certainly didn’t want to talk to that person! He let it go until it kicked the caller into voice mail.
He wondered how he could so quickly drop from the heights of “ultra-cool” into his current depressed, lethargic state. It felt like coming down from a drug-induced high.
Maybe it was a side effect of some sort, he thought.
He spotted the flyer that came with the sunglasses lying on the floor. He picked it up and leafed through it.
“Our new and improved Ultra-Cool Sunglasses are cool in three ways. 1. You look cool. 2. Your body feels cool. 3. Your mind feels cool. It’s total coolness all in one package!”
That was the large print. He looked at the smaller print. Built-in microjets forced a small but steady flow of air around your body. That accounted for the physical coolness. An airborne chemical emitted by the frame was sucked into your nose. He didn’t recognize the name of the chemical. Apparently it was a mild mood-elevator that made your mental state mellow and relaxed. Hence, mental coolness.
However, something bothered him about that. Chemically-induced coolness? It sounded like the manufacturer was using drugs to make you crave their product. Was that legal?
He searched the Internet for the chemical but found no reference to it. Google offered alternate spellings, but that was it. That made him even more concerned.
Jerry, he thought. My brother could find out.
He called his brother, who was a licensed web detective, and asked him about the chemical.
Brian spelled it.
Jerry began humming, a habit that always grated on Brian’s nerves. But today he held back his usual negative comments.
“Looks like I’ll have to get back to you. My worms and driller wasps aren’t finding anything.”
“Why is your voice echoing?”
“I’m climbing down an e-canyon. Looking for a missing person.”
“Oh. Anyway, let me know when you find something.”
“Will do. So how’s your street-walking job coming along?”
“Fine. Bye.” Jerry always made it sound less than professional.
However, his brother was one of the few people he could actually talk to — when he really had to, anyway.
He picked up the sunglasses and turned them over.
Damn, they did look good! But was that him thinking they looked good, or was it a chemical persuasion? Sleek black and silver striped frame, lenses that were metallic silver on the outside and clear glass on the inside. The glasses shimmered wildly when he twisted and turned them.
He stared at the shimmering.
He twisted and turned them again.
More shimmering . . .
And again . . .
A flash of memory jolted him. He saw a vision of Shana, dressed in green short shorts and loose yellow top, with long, flowing red hair, just like the last time he had seen her. The vision reminded him of the good times they had together. He smiled. It had been a long while since he had last seen her. Both of them had gotten busy and they stopped keeping in contact.
He tapped her number.
She has to see me in these sunglasses, he thought. I am so cool!
He put them on when he heard the sound of her voice. He spoke to her with confidence and purpose.
“Shana? Hey, long time no see. Watcha up to? Well, how about we catch up over dinner. My treat. Tomorrow then? Great! See you then.”
He clicked off, removed the sunglasses. “Did I just do that?” He smiled, admiring the sunglasses in his hand.
A cool springtime-saturated Saturday evening, the sun setting with a rainbow splash of colors, the night sky opening up with a clear panorama of stars. Perfect ingredients for a memorable date, he thought as he approached their meeting place.
Brian met Shana wearing his sunglasses. He was permitted – even encouraged – to wear the sunglasses off hours, as long as he kept the subliminal bubbles turned off.
For a moment, she didn’t recognize him. When she finally did, she burst into laughter.
“Sunglasses at night?” she cracked. “Really?”
But eventually, as their evening progressed, she grew to really like his new look, even insisting that he leave them on. After dinner, she talked him into forgoing his other plans for the evening. They went straight to his apartment.
The rest of the evening turned into the best evening he’d had in a long while. As long as he could remember. She made him keep the sunglasses on the entire time.
Later, he left Shana asleep on his bed and walked to his bathroom sink. He studied himself in the mirror. The sunglasses, still resting on his face, reflected back at him like the vigilant eyes of a watchman. He felt a great sense of peace.
Without removing the sunglasses, he splashed water on his face. Water droplets glistened on his skin and beaded like drops of mercury on the silvery dark lenses.
He felt perfectly content with his life, perhaps even happy. When was the last time he felt happy? Although he lived alone in a cubbyhole with barely enough room to move around, and worked for a meager wage as a walking advert, he came to a sudden and inexplicable realization that he was okay with it all.
After a lazy and satisfying Sunday, filled with further adventures with Shana, he awoke Monday morning energized and ready for his work day. He put on his best man-about-town GQ semi-formal wear, enabled the subliminal advert chip, and – last of all – gently, lovingly placed the sunglasses in position.
It was the beginning of week two of the recommended advertising campaign. He took a taxi to the heart of the city’s business district. It was time to take it up a notch and target the upper middle class, and even some upper class quarries.
The manufacturer’s suggested campaign involved starting at a central location, and then spiraling out by blocks in ever-expanding squares. This afforded the most coverage within his limited time.
At 8:30 AM, he keyed on the subliminal bubbles and began his unhurried walk. As he proceeded, he kept up his cool composure easily since it all felt completely natural. He wasn’t acting; drama wasn’t his forte. He was simply being himself – or rather, the cool, enhanced version of himself that had always been inside of him, craving to be unleashed. That’s what he liked to believe, anyway.
Each time he performed his commissioned walk, he noticed more and more people paying attention to him. People had become so inundated with walking adverts in recent years that they were becoming immune to their presence. However, something about Brian and those sunglasses captured the attention of many of those who had become hardened against the adverts.
Many heads turned in his direction. Men gazed at him with envy. Women smiled warmly at him. As the day progressed, several men and women began following him. More and more joined them until a small mob of followers had formed.
Mildly alarmed, he picked up his pace.
They kept up with him.
Abruptly he stopped. They stopped. He turned and looked at himself in a storefront window. His hair had become a little disheveled by the brisk walk. He reached up with a comb.
One woman jumped forward brandishing a brush in one hand and a briefcase in the other. “Let me fix your hair,” she said.
“No, no,” said another woman as she pushed to the front of the crowd. “I’m a hairdresser. I can make you look perfect.”
He backed away.
“No, thank you, ma’am, and ma’am. I must be on my way. Thank you.”
He turned and walked quickly away from them. The crowd started moving as one with a common purpose, following him as though he were the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
If he threw down those sunglasses, maybe they would leave him alone. But his hand would not reach for them. To his horror, he realized he was as obsessed by the glasses as they were!
Perhaps the glasses were defective, releasing more chemicals than they were supposed to. He had to get away from the mob and get help.
He ducked into a clothing shop, weaved between racks of shirts and sweaters and hid out in one of the men’s dressing rooms. He sat down and waited. It gave him a chance to think.
When did things get out of hand?
Did he do something different today, something he wasn’t supposed to?
More importantly, what should he do now? Call the manufacturer? Did they have an 800 emergency hotline?
His phone rang. Elvis Costello. “Watching the Detectives.”
“I got something,” his brother said over a loud buzzing sound.
“What’s the sound? Where are you?”
“E-sawmill. Another case. You don’t want to know. Gruesome. Anyway, about that chemical, it turned out to be deeply buried in top secret archives. The Defense Department had a secret program a long time ago that tested drugs and other experimental treatments on people with criminal tendencies.”
“This chemical was one of the drugs?”
“Not exactly. It was a derivative of one of those drugs that was later approved for treatment of depression.”
“So it’s safe?”
“Not exactly. Immediately after it was approved, it was pulled from the marketplace and its existence was erased from all known knowledge bases.”
“So it’s illegal then?”
“Unknown. It just disappeared. Doesn’t exist in any database.”
A store clerk called in, “Are you all right, sir?”
“That’s it? That’s all you know?”
The store clerk asked, “Is that all I know about what, sir?”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t talking to you. I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”
Jerry said, “That’s all for now. I’ll keep digging, bro. But no guarantees I’ll find anything else.”
He peeked out. Just the young female store clerk and a couple of middle-aged ladies browsing the racks. He couldn’t see any of his followers around. Apparently, when they separated from him, the spell of the sunglasses was broken. They probably wondered what the hell they were doing in this clothing store blocks away from where they were supposed to be.
He stepped out of the dressing room with a shirt he had grabbed on his way to the dressing room.
“Will you be getting that, sir?”
“Uh, yeah.” He hoped it was his size.
As he paid for the shirt, he noticed increased attention from the store clerk and other ladies nearby. He hurried out of the store after she handed him his purchase. Her hand trembled when it made contact with his. Their eyes met. She smiled broadly.
“Thank you,” she said in a softer voice.
He hurried out of the store and hurried home, avoiding people as much as possible by weaving back and forth and taking side streets.
In his apartment, he easily removed the glasses. He carefully placed them on an end table. Then he quickly walked away from them.
He was hungry.
He went into the kitchen. His thoughts drifted sporadically between leftover pizza and deeper thoughts, like what the hell happened today?
As he settled into his couch with a slice of cold pepperoni pizza and a double-caffeinated cola, he channel-surfed to take his mind off his problem. He turned his cell phone off. He needed to be left alone from the outside world.
With the sunglasses now removed, he noticed he was less tolerant of the outside world, especially the people who populated it. If he never saw another human face again, that would be okay with him. He was, he duly noted, his old, usual uncool and anti-social self. But the intensity of those feelings seemed super-sized.
He was happy his old self was back. Old Brian fit pretty comfortably on his body, like a worn-out pair of shoes. He was content. He found it suddenly easy to forget about all those worries about the sunglasses. Soon he completely forgot about them.
That night his sleep was restful.
The next morning, the persistent chatter of the doorbell wrenched Brian out of a deep sleep. He grumbled, cursed, and stumbled to the door. He popped open a virtual viewport. An old man in well-worn clothing stood outside his door slightly stooped and holding a small package. The mandatory full body door scan revealed no known history of criminal activity. His facial profile indicated a 91% probability of a gentle and harmless personality. The optional in-depth analysis returned a likely chance that the man was simply doing his job. Just to be sure, Brian also ran a check against the predator database.
99% confident of his vetting of the delivery man, Brian opened the door just wide enough to accept and sign for the package. Then he bade the 99% safe delivery man a good day and closed the door.
The package was from his unseen employer. It was the newest and latest and greatest sunglasses! An attached letter explained how he was to immediately stop his current advertising campaign and begin advertising their new product.
The flyer stated, “If you thought our Ultra-Cool Sunglasses were the coolest thing on earth, wait until you try our new Super-Ultra-Cool Sunglasses. Not only are they cool in three ways (mind, body and soul), but they also let you share the coolness with everyone around you. When you wear these sunglasses, you’ll get a veritable posse of cool.”
He dropped the flyer. It sounded like they did something about that chemical leak after all. They decided to take full advantage of it.
This had to be illegal!
He picked up the padded package and carefully opened it. As he slowly extracted the glasses, he gasped in spite of himself.
The frames were electric blue and streamlined, and they spat sparks like lightning. The lenses were as dark as midnight, with a sheen like polished obsidian. He felt an overpowering urge to put them on right now and never take them off.
He set them down and quickly walked away from them.
They’re evil, he thought. They take control of your mind, your body, your soul. They consume you and shape your personality to their requirements. You become their plaything, their automaton, ready and waiting for their commands.
And then what? he wondered. To what purpose?
He suspected something sinister, something more than just selling lots and lots of sunglasses, more than just making money. On second thought, maybe they just wanted to make lots of money.
He paced. How many of us are out there doing their dirty work for them?
Did he really want to be part of a corporate manipulation of people to buy their product, no matter how cool it was? Did he?
To be honest, he never did care much for people anyway, so did he really care that he was tricking people into buying something? It was just a stupid job. So what was up with all this conscience stuff?
His phone rang.
“It has side effects,” his brother said over a howling wind.
“Sorry.” He spoke louder. “E-windtunnel. I said it has side effects. That’s why it was pulled. It caused an addiction that was so powerful people couldn’t free themselves from it.”
“Oh. Maybe this side effect has been fixed by now.” Before he said the words, he didn’t believe it.
“Maybe. But maybe you should hang up your walking shoes, Brian.”
An hour later Shana stopped by and found Brian sitting on his couch, staring blankly at the flickering images that made cool high definition patterns on his big screen. He had keyed her in after a routine scan.
“I was sure I’d miss you,” she said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
“Hey, what’s this? New sunglasses? These are even cooler than the last ones. Try ’em on yet?”
He shook his head.
“You have to try them on.”
“No. I’m sending them back.”
“Is something wrong with them?” She picked them up. “They look okay to me. Why don’t you try them on?”
She held them under his face. He tensed. He started to answer her, but the words wouldn’t come out. He couldn’t tell her about his reservations. Damn, he thought, they really were cool and he really did want to put them on.
“I don’t know what it is, Brian, but cool sunglasses like these make you into a different person.”
He stared at her. “A different person? Or maybe a better person? Better than the old Brian?”
“Yeah,” she said, clearly both excited and oblivious to his tone of sarcasm. “A better Brian. That’s what you become.”
He took the sunglasses from her hand and held them a moment.
“Shana, I’m not really a better person when I put them on. I just think that I’m better and everyone else thinks that I’m better, too.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
He hesitated. He still felt that his employer was doing something unethical. That still bothered him.
“Put them on, Brian.”
He sighed and put on the new super-ultra-cool sunglasses.
His irritation with the world lifted from him like a heavy burden from his chest. His spirits rose to new heights. His physical body drifted into a carefree place where all tensions were released.
He smiled broadly. Why did he ever worry about doing this? He noted how beautiful the room had become. He noticed how beautiful Shana had become, her red hair flowing in slow motion waves. Then he saw beyond Shana and the room, into the world of beautiful people and flowers and tall trees and the creative handiwork of the people.
As he moved toward the door that would open into the world of beautiful people, he barely noticed Shana crumbling to the floor at his feet, mouthing something that sounded like static. She reached up to him as he moved past. He let her touch him as he went by. He smiled down at her. She would wait for him.
He went out.
He had an adoring public to please.
BIO: John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. For a living, he develops and installs computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Twilight Times, Aurora Wolf and Kraxon Magazine, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years. His author’s webpage is https://johnafrochio.wordpress.com/about/.