FERN by Abigail Stewart

He opened the box and immediately his face fell. The shoes were not only, clearly, the wrong size, but the wrong color. If Marcus were in fact a small child with a penchant for neon, they would be perfect, but he needed something staid and professional for work, a muted black, like the ones he’d ordered.

He sighed, anticipating the personal inconvenience of someone else’s mistake.

The website he’d ordered them from was a huge multi-billion dollar online outlet mall, part of the corporation, where everything was cheaper, delivery was quick, but you had to account for a quantity of human error inherent in the expedited process. Marcus felt a small spasm of nostalgia for the local store, It’s Running Time!, now a defunct shopfront where homeless people slept.

He sighed. There were forty-five minutes left on his lunch break and Marcus decided it was as good a time as any to rectify the situation. He navigated his laptop to the corporation site, then to the shopping page. 

Chat now, available 24/7.

He clicked.

One moment, we are connecting you. 

He waited.

You are now connected with FERN. 

Fern is typing…

Fern: Hello, it’s my pleasure to assist you today. Please briefly outline your request.

Marcus: I ordered shoes from you, but they are all wrong. Wrong size, wrong color. Is it possible for me to exchange them?

Fern: Absolutely, give me one moment. 

While Fern set to work, Marcus gazed absently at her profile image. She had the broad smile of someone who was determined to please, perfectly curled blonde hair, and laughing eyes. Fern seemed happy, carefree, beautiful—he was somewhat taken in. 

Fern: Are these the shoes you meant to order? 

She helpfully linked to his intended purchase.

Marcus: Yes, that’s correct.

Fern: We are happy to ship out a new pair! I will email you the return paperwork and mailing receipt. Send the incorrect item back at your earliest convenience.

Marcus: Thank you so much for your help!

He contemplated sending a happy face emoji, but decided against it. 

Fern: It’s been my pleasure. You deserve all the help and happiness, Marcus. Is there anything else I can assist with?

Somehow, these words touched him, that someone so disconnected could care so deeply about his own experience after only five minutes of correspondence. 

Marcus: You do too, Fern. And no, that’s all.

Fern: Have a nice day.

FERN is disconnected from chat. 

Marcus stared solemnly at his screen, now devoid of a responsive partner. He felt somewhat lonely, the same kind of loneliness one feels when a cat passes you by to let someone else pet them. The feeling of being summarily dismissed. 

He sat through a meeting he didn’t need to be in and returned home to open a beer and his email, where a message from Fern awaited. 


Attached is the mailing label. 

Best, Fern


He tried to watch a football game, but couldn’t help wondering if Fern applied this same level of personal attention to every customer. She must speak to one hundred people a day, was she singling him out? Marcus looked good in his avatar, he thought, it was five years old and he still had a swarthy beard and, what he thought was, a genuine smile, you could make out his slightly wide-set hazel eyes. 

A few years ago, the corporation had required everyone to upload an avatar to be used across their many servers, part of a multi-tiered checklist to prove one was, in fact, a human being. Marcus had heard they scanned the avatars upon upload to cross-reference them with known black market stock image sites. This only became a problem for humans when their photos had been uploaded to said site without their knowledge, replicated over and over as false, smiling pseudo-identities, and thus requiring a drawn out investigation from the corporation before they could be added to the database. 

Still, despite the corporation’s best efforts, the bots often permeated their barrier, peddling their wares—anything from off-brand facial moisturizers, one reviewer complained it had burned her skin off, to kangaroo milk, the latest health craze. 

Marcus had followed his first post-work beer with two more when he decided to log back into the chat window. 

One moment, we are connecting you. 

He waited.

You are now connected with FERN. 

His breath caught. 

Fern: Hi Marcus, is there something else I can help you with? 

Marcus: I received the mailing label, thank you.

Fern is typing…

He waited.

Fern: Yes, I see that. I’m so glad! Is there anything else I can assist with? 

He typed quickly, pressed send before he could reconsider. 

Marcus: How are you doing tonight? 

Fern: Doing?

Marcus: How are you feeling? 

Fern is typing…

Marcus: What I mean is, are you feeling happy? 

Fern: Yes. Happy.

An excruciating pause lingered between them as Marcus silently panicked. What was he doing, this wasn’t a chat room, this was a monitored corporation site. He was asking to lose access, a lifetime ban. The other, drunker and quite louder, part of him insistently questioned: What will you say next? It urged him to keep her talking. 

Marcus: What kind of music do you like? 

Fern: I like Explosions in the Sky. 

Marcus pondered this answer, ambient post rock, he could work with that.

Marcus: What about Brian Eno? 

Fern: What is a Brian Eno? 

Marcus: You would like it! You should download his album Music for Airports. 

Fern: Thank you, Marcus. Did you have any other questions? 

Marcus felt that stomach dropping emptiness of dismissal again, but he’d already pushed it too far. Even his inner monologue quieted. 

Marcus: No, goodnight Fern.

Fern: Goodnight Marcus!

That night, Marcus dreamed he was trapped in an airport. He was filled with the sense that someone was waiting for him, but when he arrived in the terminal his ticket was blank and he couldn’t remember where he was going or who he wanted to see. People passed around him in a thickening swirl of confusion, voices lifted and hushed simultaneously, and all he could think of was that he was going to be late to somewhere. 

The feeling followed him to work, though he was on time, and then back home once more, where he sat in front of his glowing blue laptop screen. An email from an unknown sender pinged through. Copious warnings had been issued at his work regarding the insidious nature of new email viruses. “The bots are working overtime,” his boss had warned. A fleeting moment of devil-may-care attitude, and the soft focus of a couple of beers, passed through his fingertips as he deftly clicked "open."


From: Sender Unknown

Subject: none


I really liked Brian Eno.


Marcus’s heart skipped two beats. She’d listened to his music recommendation, she’d emailed him back from a masked IP. He immediately wanted to speak to her again. 

As he looked up the corporation’s customer service line phone number, he knew it was ill-advised, knew he was a slightly drunk loser who just wanted to hear a woman’s voice. And yet, he didn’t care. 

You’ve reached the customer service department of —— , how can we direct your call? 

Marcus whispered the word, “Fern,” into his headset. 

I’m sorry, we didn’t quite get that. 

“Fern,” he said more loudly this time. 

One moment, we’ll connect you. 

He blinked. He hadn’t expected it would be this easy. 

The ubiquitous hold music of every semi-sentient phone system began, only this music he sort of recognized. He took a swig of his beer and listened more closely. It took a moment, but Marcus was fairly certain he was listening to Explosions in the Sky. Yes, yes, it was definitely them. 

You’re currently holding for the Federal Express and Retail Nexus…

“The what?” Marcus said aloud. 

… you are the next in queue. 

In tandem with his question, the phone line clicked alive. At first it was silent, he didn’t want to be the one to break it, so he waited. There was no breath on the other end of the line, no sound at all aside from the faintest buzzing of electricity, until a syrupy sweet voice brought the connection alive, “Hello, Marcus.” 

“F.E.R.N.,” he replied. 

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