Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano

Ad Choices

by Rachel Kabongo

Lisa smiled thinly, looking down at the tendrils of vapour rising from her cappuccino, while floating words appeared in the space just above her head. The bulky, capitalized words were invisible to anyone but Terry. He sighed, and they flared in size.

“I was just wondering, I mean, why you wanted to meet,” Lisa said. “It’s been a while. You know.”

A lilting guitar instrumental suggested itself in the air. It was hard, in the room’s dim light, to notice that Lisa had dyed her hair a slightly darker shade than the one she’d sported six months ago. Terry looked at her and saw her just as she was then. The words expanded, erasing the wall behind her, darkening the shadows across her forehead, and it was hard for Terry to see anything else at all.

During his pause, her hand brought her cappuccino up to her face. She took a small sip, frowning at the heat.

“You look well,” Terry said.

“You don’t,” Lisa replied, but there was no venom in it. Another small sip. “You said you needed my help. You said it was an emergency.”

“I do.” He scratched at his arm. “It is.” Her eyes were the same as back then, too. Wide and beckoning. Softer than he deserved. It was easy, too easy to take advantage of her pity. Even now.

“Well? I want to help you, Terry,” Lisa said. “I don’t like seeing you like this.”

The words were enormous. They roved to-and-fro like a screensaver. Their pressure filled his throat, then his mouth. These words were easier to use than the other ones, the ones Lisa wanted, that remained couched in his guts, inextricable from his shame.

“Well,” he finally read, “I was wondering if you’d be interested in trying Nature’s Own coffee.”

Lisa frowned. “What?”

“Nature’s Own coffee is one hundred percent ethically sourced. We roast only the most premium Arabica beans, which are taste-tested by our flavour experts, on average, over a million times a day—give or take. Try Nature’s Own coffee with Nature’s Own coffee cake cookies.”

Lisa’s frown deepened further, until it looked like a series of cuts. Her lips formed a hard line. “I can’t believe this.”

“You better believe that our coffee is one hundred percent ethically sourced. Rest assured that Nature’s Own is the sustainable choice.”

“Really, Terry?”

Terry spoke faster, louder. “Love the smell of fresh coffee in the morning? Don’t limit yourself! Try Nature’s Own coffee at any time of day, even with lunch or supper. Our premium blend is scientifically balanced to aid with digestion, boost your metabolism, promote weight loss, and reduce the occurrence of acne. Seriously, you have to try it.”

Lisa was silent. She looked down at the coffee stirrer set next to her cappuccino. Her fingers passed the stirrer back and forth between them. Terry noticed, vaguely, that the barista had attempted a leaf pattern in the foam of her coffee. The pattern roamed above the drink’s brown like a lazy cloud.

A sudden ripple disturbed the cloud.

“I thought you called me because you wanted to apologize,” Lisa murmured.

Terry’s hand instinctively reached for hers, but she abandoned the coffee stirrer in an instant and interlaced her fingers in her lap. She waited, he waited, but he still couldn’t use the right words. The silence dragged on, on, on, on, threaded with low, happy guitar.

“Fuck you,” she said, standing up. She picked up her purse and glared down at him, her gaze a boiling liquid. “I should’ve known this was about money. I should’ve known as soon as I—” She shook her head, took a deep breath. “Don’t text me again. Just… fuck you.”

“Wait,” Terry called after her. “I’m finished, I promise. I just needed to—”

“Stay out of my life,” Lisa said. She didn’t look back. “Just leave me alone.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, but she was already at the door, already opening it, already stepping out into the cool morning haze. The man and woman sitting at the table next to Terry glanced over at him, then said something he didn’t catch.

He sat alone, looking at the cappuccino she had left behind. He brought it closer to him and, with the coffee stirrer, swirled the remains of the leaf pattern on its surface into disorder.

As he drank Lisa’s cappuccino, Terry looked around the coffee shop. Everyone seemed to murmur or mumble or whisper. No one seemed to truly talk. At the table adjacent to him, a man in a fluffy turtleneck and a woman with glasses conversed animatedly. Their hands sliced across the space separating them. Terry felt as if they were acting, mouthing nonsense words to each other, imitating random vowels and consonants with their lips. They shook with mutual laughter, but it was almost soundless.

Terry’s apartment lacked a couch. A solitary folding chair faced an empty television stand and a blank wall. An assortment of used cups littered the television stand, some toppled over, some full of liquid, one stuffed full with credits. The kitchen, too, was bare. No stools faced the island. There was no oven. There was no fridge.

Terry sat on the hard, plastic chair, reached for the cup overflowing with credits, and counted them one by one with ritualistic focus. When all was said and done, it still wasn’t quite enough.

All at once he felt cold. The gaps in the kitchen and living room where grey wall appeared echoed his cold.

Terry raked a hand through his hair, tugging so hard a few strands lost their roots.

He slammed the cup down on the floor. Credits burst from it, but he caught the bills in an instant, then shoved them back into the cup.

He grumbled under his breath, “Fuck this shit. Fuck this shit fuck this shit fuck this shit.”

There were three knocks at the door.

They were meeting at his place this time. No use in dragging out these kinds of interactions in public spaces. It had been different, with Lisa. He had hoped, maybe, that they might have talked after. He had thought, if this thing is forcing me to meet with her, after all this time, maybe I’ll take it as a sign. Maybe this could mean—

What did it matter what he’d thought?

When he looked at his phone, earlier, noticing without much excitement that ten credits had been deposited into his account—of course, if Lisa bought Nature’s Own, it would have been fifty credits instead—a name appeared, floating, atop the screen, in the same capital letters he was growing to loathe.

And so he messaged James and asked to meet.

Now James. Now James who he hadn’t seen since—since university. He was surprised he still had the number saved in his contacts; he must have forgotten to delete it.

Who was he kidding?

Of course, he kept the number saved. Just in case.

He wished he didn’t have to open the door, didn’t have to talk about coffee or oatmeal or cereal or fast food or hair products. What would it be with James? Maybe fitness equipment or a local gym. If Terry recalled correctly, James had been a personal trainer. Though, by now, James could be any number of things. Terry wished he could warn James, but the contract he had signed with the Agency was ironclad.

Three more knocks.

Sighing, cursing, Terry trudged toward the door and swung it open.

The words were impatient when it came to James. They didn’t even give Terry the chance to let him in, give him a seat, ask if he wanted water to drink. They appeared immediately, white and bulky, as if they sensed James’s testiness. James said, “So?” and Terry replied, “So, James… have you heard about Enerco workout supplements?”

Terry didn’t notice how James’s eyes flared. Or that he leaned slightly forward with his fists clenched. Terry was too focused on the words, which were stretching in size, becoming impossibly wider and taller, until they seemed to graze the ceiling.

“Look—” James began.

“Enerco workout supplements are the perfect pre- or post-workout pick-me-up. Officially endorsed by Nike, the Greek goddess of Victory. Guaranteed to boost your performance, both mentally and physically—”

“Hey, can you stop, man?”

“—during and long after the game or workout. Specially formulated with a blend of healthy fats, muscle growth enhancing serums, electrolytes, protein, testosterone, and our special weight-loss formula. Enerco supplements also carry a firm guarantee that they will not come up on drug tests.”

James stepped through the words and chest-bumped Terry, shoving him backward.

Struggling for balance, Terry took a deep breath. The air nearly made a whistling noise as it was sucked past his teeth. “Don’t believe me?” he continued. “These are the words of famous track athlete Usain Bolt. According to Bolt, ‘My last name wouldn’t be Bolt if it wasn’t for Enerco supplements.’ They’re exactly what I need to stay on top of my game. Buy Enerco!’”

James’s eyes were level, cold. “Fuck you, man. You to ask me to come over just to… take a piss in front of me? Listen. I don’t ever want to hear from you again. And keep that fucking money.” James deliberately glanced atop Terry’s shoulder, into his apartment, then back at him. Terry shriveled, his chin sinking into his chest. “Looks like you need it, anyway.”


Terry’s right cheek was ground beef in a masher. His teeth throbbed, and his jaw pulsed in tandem with them.

He collapsed to his knees, putting a hand to his face. He would have called out after James, he would have said that he was sorry, but his jaw was in too much pain.

Or maybe he didn’t want to.

What did it matter, anyway?

There was a soft chime from inside his apartment. A notification on his phone.

Ten credits to his account.

Once the pain in his face dimmed some, Terry counted the credits in his cup again. With the latest payment for James, he realized with relish, there was enough. James—uppity, clean-living, 5-am wakeup James—had never liked him, anyway, so that was that.

Terry scrambled for his phone, nearly dropping it in his haste, and called Alex.

“What’s up?” Alex’s gruff voice always suggested he was occupied with other, better things.

“It’s me. Terry. Can we meet later tonight? I need horse. The usual amount.”

A long sigh. “You get your shit together, Terry? I don’t run a charity case. You know that. No funds, no horse. Doesn’t matter how much you whine, either.” There was a voice in the background. Or maybe a television running. A woman. An incessant waterfall of words.

“I have credits,” Terry said.

“Hm. Okay, meet me at the pier, seven pm.”

Alex wore a black crewneck t-shirt and a leather messenger bag slung over his shoulder. His hair fell over his eyes in a messy swoop. He couldn’t have been older than nineteen.

Terry handed an envelope with the credits to Alex. After a brief inspection of its contents, Alex smacked his lips and retrieved a brown package from his messenger bag.

“Looks like it’s all here,” Alex said. “Good.”

Terry clawed at the package and weighed it within his palms.

The elevator’s tinny, static-filled Muzak was the smoothest of jazz. The sound of Terry’s feet as he walked toward his door was the drumbeat of a symphony that sang throughout his body. He was humming when he walked into his apartment.


He kissed his package before laying it down on the kitchen counter. He twirled and danced to the beat of his inner music, checking this drawer then that, finding most empty. Eventually a spoon appeared. Some time later a lighter made an appearance. The syringe manifested last.



Music was exploding out of his extremities. He moved in jerky, spastic motions, conducting it. The package revealed its contents: two small white bags. Terry grabbed one, taking a moment to revel in the feel of it within his palm.




Once an unmeasured portion of powder filled the spoon, Terry smiled. He spun in a circle, his arms in the air, and saw her.

She was sitting on the living room chair.

She looked up, impassive, like something carved. Her eyes took in his puffy cheek, the spoon, the syringe, the lighter, the plastic baggie, the slow falling of his face. She said, “You left your door unlocked.”

A shiver ran through Terry. How long had she been sitting there?

He rushed to move the spoon—carefully—out of sight, to shift the package and its contents to an empty drawer. The lighter and syringe disappeared within his pocket.

She did not stand but only watched as he circled the small living room so that he sat on the ground opposite her. His face felt filled up with red. He went back in time. He was fifteen, seventeen, twenty, twenty-five, looking at varying versions of her—each one more gaunt, more drawn, than the last.

“Hi, Mom,” Terry said.

She said nothing. She waited, still and silent.


She coughed. A shy smile appeared on her face. “You texted me. I can’t believe— And I realized that I’d deleted your number.” She looked down at her lap. “I’m sorry. I should have come to see you sooner.” A pause, for both to process. Then, quietly, “What happened to your face?”

“I—” A dissonant groan interrupted his sentence. The words were there, floating over her head. His eyes burned. His throat swallowed a scream. He tried to ignore the words, but they were crawling over his shoulders, falling over his face, zooming into his eyes, bleaching his vision, tunneling inside his throat, choking his breath.

His voice came out shaky, laboured.

“Mom, have you ever considered Rejuvix facial cream?” Her eyes widened, and he swallowed, before continuing, “Patented to noticeably smooth wrinkles and fine lines within a week of use. Composed from all-natural ingredients. These include coconut milk, goat’s blood, aloe vera, all-natural bleach, and lemon peel. Look for Rejuvix facial cream at your local pharmacy and turn back the clock.”

She laced her hands together, thought for a moment, and then stood up. There was nothing at all on her face.

“I see.”


A crack within her granite face: the melting shake of her eyes, the slight downturn of her lips. It silenced him.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she whispered, so low he barely heard it.

He moved closer to her, grabbing her hands within his. “I didn’t have a choice. I’m sorry. I needed—I needed the money.”

“You needed the money,” she echoed.

He said nothing as her hands left his, as they clasped his left wrist, as they pulled the sleeve of his sweatshirt up toward his elbow.

“You needed the money,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Terry repeated. Her face was blurring, melting. “I’m sorry—”

“So am I.”

And she was gone.

A chime coming from his phone.

Nausea overcame him. He tumbled and tottered toward the bathroom as if the ground were rolling waves. There was nothing to purge but bile. His chest heaved and roiled atop the toilet until there was nothing left but air. Once the ground stilled its motion, he stood and looked into the mirror.

He was too thin; his cheekbones sliced through his cheeks. There was an electric, too-bright spark shooting from his eyes.

He ran his hands through his hair.

“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.”

A patch of hair loosened itself, joining the others on the ground.

White, capital-sized block letters appeared, floating atop his head. When he didn’t read them, they circled his head, peeking out at his temples, slithering along his back, lodging themselves in his throat.

And so he read, facing his reflection, his eyes warm and blinking.

“If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, consider booking a stay at Relax Time rehabilitation facilities. Our four-, six-, and eight-month plans all come with interest-free payment plan options. Choose to be happy! Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

A chime came from his phone.