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Elayne dropped her keys in their spot and slipped her aluminium foil headband over her temples. A familiar wave of welcome enveloped her.
Her toasts clustered around the TV. Their aluminium antennae glinted in the dim blue light.
Elayne sighed. They were watching that Disney Singles Cruise infomercial again.
The bagel (he was her favourite, but they all pretended not to know it) wobbled over to her on its tiny legs and bumped against her shins in greeting.
'I keep telling you, we can't go. I can't afford it, and anyway, it's a boat. It's surrounded by water. What if one of you fell in? There's nothing worse than soggy toast.'
The toasts beamed cheerful optimism at her. The bagel pointed to her computer.
Elayne obediently sat down. The toasts sent an image of her email icon, so she opened it.
There was an email from her mother at the very top. It had already been opened.
'What are you up to?' she muttered.
Hi honey! I just got an email from one of your friends, a ToastyPal, which is a very strange name, by the way. This internet is such an odd place. Anyway, ToastyPal mentioned that you might like to do one of those 'single's cruises', and even sent a link to a Disney version that looks super fun! Your father and I didn't want to say anything, but we're worried about you, sweetie. It's been over a year since you stopped seeing your Rick. He was such a nice-looking young man!
We're getting you a ticket for this cruise for your birthday. Happy 30th, sweetie! I'm sure you'll have a great time!
Elayne rounded on the toasts. 'You emailed my MOTHER?'
They burbled with excitement and filled her mind with images from the infomercial. Sexy young people, the on-deck pool, the waterslide, the buffet line – she held up her hands. 'Stop, stop! We still can't go! You haven't solved the water problem!'
They suggested that she go without them. 'No. This is your idea.' She didn't know how far their telepathic link would stretch, and she couldn't imagine going a week without them. The thought made her queasy.
Bagel held up a box of Ziploc sandwich baggies, and the toasts hopped up and down in glee.
Elayne packed three boxes of Dramamine, her swimsuit, and some random clothes. The toasts insisted that she include a few nice dresses.
She sighed. 'I don't want to meet someone. What if he's like Rick? What if he hurts you?' Painful memories of vacuuming crumbs out of her carpet bubbled up in her mind. ‘I – I can't do this.'
The toasts beamed her a stream of scenes from romantic movies, then images of her eating dinner alone. They didn't like to see her lonely.
She sighed and threw the dresses in her suitcase. 'You're worse than my mother. I never should have gotten you that Netflix subscription.'
The people on the cruise were mostly older and all less attractive than the people in the infomercial. It was a bit of a relief. Her room was cute and tidy, and the soap was shaped like Mickey Mouse.
She opened her suitcase, and the toasts struggled out. They were never very fast-moving, and with their ziplock outfits, they were even slower.
'Well, we're here.'
The toasts bobbled around the room, exploring every nook and cranny. Bagel and English Muffin peered at the event schedule. They pointed to a mixer that started in five minutes.
'I'd rather take a few minutes to settle in,' Elayne said. The toasts beamed a stern glance at her. She rolled her eyes and adjusted the headband over her aluminium foil band. 'Fine, I'll go. And I'll stay in constant contact, so you can all see the boat. Promise me that you won't get into trouble.'
She opened the door and walked straight into a man. The toasts were delighted. They beamed at least twenty garbled meet cutes at her.
'Oh, I'm so sorry!' the stranger said, staring at the floor. He twisted his hands together as if he wasn't sure what else to do with them. He was only slightly taller than Elayne, with short hair and a goatee.
'It's okay,' Elayne said. 'After all, we're supposed to be here to meet people.' She plastered on what she hoped was a winning smile.
This is awkward, Elayne thought directly at the toasts. 'I'm Elayne.'
'I was going to the opening mixer. Want to walk with me?' Elayne asked.
Albert shook his head. 'No, I – no. Thanks, though. It was nice meeting you.' He held out his hand, and Elayne shook it.
'Is that aluminium foil in your hair?' he asked, leaning forward.
Elayne covered her head with both hands. 'What? No, of course not.’
'Right. Right. Sorry.' Albert slipped into the room next to Elayne's. She went back into her own room, made herself a drink from the mini fridge, and ordered room service. The toasts beamed their disappointment at her till she took her headband off.
She slept late, then spent about an hour in bed wondering what she was doing with her life. Bagel waddled over and cuddled up under her chin.
She got up, put on one of the dresses, and went to the events that the toasts had circled on the schedule.
The waterslide was fun, especially with the toasts' joy at experiencing it welling up in her mind. But she didn't really meet anyone. Other people coupled off all around her, and she eventually ended up alone at the dinner buffet. She imagined how miserable she'd be without the toasts' cheerfulness in the back of her head. She stood at the end of the line with her tray and had flashbacks to the first day of middle school.
'I'm too old for this,' Elayne muttered.
'Oh, hello, Albert.'
'Want to sit with me?'
Elayne's relief at the invitation was just as ridiculous as everything else about her life. She nodded. 'Thanks.' He led her to one of the many two-person tables. 'How was your first day?' she asked.
Albert shrugged. 'I didn't get a sunburn. That's good, I guess.'
Elayne poked at her food. 'This doesn't really seem like your thing,' she said.
Albert shrugged. 'My father got me the ticket, and I figured it could be good research. I'm writing a book.'
The toasts were very enthused. 'What kind of book?'
'A murder mystery. I'm only about halfway done, and I normally only have time to write on my lunch breaks at work, so I'm trying to get extra writing time in.'
'Can I ask you a personal question?' Albert asked.
The toasts flooded her with anticipation. 'Sure.'
'Why are you here? I can't imagine you having any trouble meeting people.'
Elayne blushed. 'I had a bad break up with my last boyfriend. And my parents got me my ticket, too.'
'A bad breakup? Over what?'
A wave of dizzying terror washed over her. Images and sensations blurred together in her mind. She closed her eyes to try to sort it out. Vertigo and cold and fear and an image of the cruise ship from below. A trickle of water, leaking through a poorly sealed Ziploc baggie.
Bagel had fallen off the boat.
What were you doing on deck? She stood up, and her chair clattered on its side. 'I have to go.' She ran outside. Where had he fallen? Bagel tried to show her, but it was hard to tell from his perspective, and his mounting panic wasn't helping.
The cruise ship was moving fast. Bagel could see the stern, blocking out the stars above.
Elayne clambered up the railing.
Hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her down. 'What are you doing? No matter how bad it was, I'm sure it's not worth it!'
'Let me go!' She wondered how fast the ship was moving. 'I'm not jumping off the boat because of Rick! I have to rescue Bagel!'
‘I – something important to me fell overboard!'
'So you're going to jump in after it?'
'Without a life jacket?'
Bagel's panic curled in Elayne's chest. 'Just let me go!'
Albert grabbed two life vests, shoved one into her chest and pulled the other one on. 'I'm not letting you go alone.'
He grabbed her hand, and they both clambered over the side.
The cold water hurt, and the bulky life jacket restricted her movement. She dropped Albert's hand and swam toward Bagel. She could see herself fumbling toward him through his tiny foil eyes. Her fingers touched slick plastic, and Bagel scrambled up onto her shoulder.
Albert splashed over. 'Is that – is that a bagel?'
Elayne paddled back from him. 'Yes.'
'You jumped in here for a bagel?'
Bagel hopped on her shoulder.
'Holy shit, did it just move?'
‘I – wha – how?’
Elayne shrugged, and Bagel bumped into her ear. The toasts trusted him. And he had jumped into the ocean with her. 'Magic, I think. I'm not sure. I toasted a mouldy piece of bread, and it came to life, and so did everything I toasted after that.'
'Are they intelligent?'
'That is so cool.'
They floated in the cold water. 'Can I ask you something?' Elayne asked.
'Why did you ask me to sit with you?'
'Well, you were kind of a mystery. With the foil in your hair and everything. I like mysteries.'
'The foil lets me communicate with the toasts.'
‘That – really doesn't make sense.'
A searchlight swooped across the water and settled on them. Bagel slid into Elayne's shirt, and the next few minutes were a blur of shouting voices and bright lights. Hands pulled her from the water and wrapped a silvery blanket around her and Albert.
An official-looking woman knelt next to them. 'I'm the safety officer. Are you two okay?'
They both nodded. Elayne was hyper-aware of Bagel, squished against her chest.
'How did you end up in the water?' she asked, her voice stern.
Elayne stared at the deck. Excuses bounced around in her head.
‘I – ‘
'I was leaning too far out,' Albert said. His eyes flicked to Elayne, then to the woman. 'Showing off. I slipped and fell, and she grabbed us each a life vest and jumped after me.'
The toasts were impressed by his story. The safety officer sighed. Elayne wondered how many men fell off the boat while trying to show off. 'You should have called for help.'
'I'm sorry,' Elayne said. 'I panicked.'
'You're both going to want to get out of your wet clothes, and a hot shower. But you shouldn't be in any danger of hypothermia.'
The safety officer ushered them back to their rooms. The toasts clustered around as Elayne pulled Bagel out of her bosom and peeled the damp plastic wrap away. He wiggled his tiny arms and legs, then hopped a few times. Elayne sagged onto the bed in relief.
Someone knocked on the door. 'Elayne? It's Albert.'
The toasts surged forward with a newly folded aluminium headband.
'You really think this is a good idea?' Elayne asked.
The toasts' optimism buzzed in her head. They replayed him jumping into the ocean with her, his positive response to Bagel, then the way he'd covered for her. The montage did paint Albert in a pretty positive light. 'Okay,' Elayne said. 'Okay.'
She opened the door and handed Albert the headband. 'Put this on, and come on in.'
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death... She's a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com