For Tim, it was another hard day at the office.

Several hours of non-stop phone calls, filing, and reports on matters he barely knew about. It was a good job – paid the bills, at least – but most of the time he was bored out of his mind.

The only thing to look forward to was Carrie’s Bar.

Sure he could go home, go to his wife, and spend the evening switching off his brain, but he preferred the vibrancy of Carrie’s. It was a place he could kick back, sit on a stool, and drink until the boredom went away.

It usually never did.

But it was a routine now.

And so, after his hard day, Tim entered, sat at his usual stool, and ordered his usual beer. He drank it quick, put down the empty glass, and ordered another one.

The bartender – someone new he didn’t recognise – just kept pouring every time Tim asked.

A routine.

Set in stone.

Drunk, Tim thought about this routine, this life he had. He thought about his each day seemed to bleed into the next; Monday to Friday was a get up, go to work, come home type of affair, while the weekends were just… empty. Boring. Going shopping, reading papers, watching reality TV.

Routine.

With a chuckle, he shook his head and looked at the bartender.

“Feels like I’m living in the Matrix.”

“Maybe you are.”

It wasn’t the bartender that spoke, but the man two stools down. Tim couldn’t say he’d seen him before, but he was always welcome for conversation at this time of the night.

Anything to mix things up.

“Maybe I’m what?”

“In the Matrix, or something like it.”

The man didn’t look at Tim, instead just smoking his cigarette and swilling his drink in his glass. Intriguing by this character, Tim shifted up and sat next to him.

“So I’m in the Matrix, huh?”

“Or something like it.”

“What makes you say that?”

The stranger just shrugged.

“Come on… indulge me. You one of these conspiracy nuts?”

“Something like that.”

“Is that all you say?”

“Nope.”

This made Tim laugh. Most would be annoyed by the stranger’s manner, but Tim was pleased for the entertainment. The distraction. Something new to break him from the monotony.

“So,” Tim said, “We’re in the Matrix.”

Before the stranger could answer, Tim said ‘or something like that’ to great amusement.

The stranger kept staring straight ahead.

“How do you know?”

The stranger shrugged.

“You can’t just stop there. Tell me! How do you know this isn’t real?”

The stranger stubbed out his cigarette, and produced another from his pocket. Tim thought that smoking had been banned in these parts, but no one was really bothering to tell the stranger otherwise.

“You really want to now?”

“Yes. Yes! Come on…”

The stranger lit his cigarette, took a long drag, and blew out a steady stream of smoke.

“So the world is pretty fucked, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Just a bit,” Tim said, motioning to the Bartender to get them involved.

They went back to cleaning glasses.

“So what do you do? You create a world for people to have instead. A virtual reality.”

“And this is the best they could come up with?”

“This is the one no one would notice.”

“Good. Nice,” Tim said, shaking his finger and smiling. “Make it as shitty as the actual world. Clever. Just like the Matrix.”

“Sure.”

“So how do we get back in the Real World then, brother?”

Another long drag.

“Safe word.”

Tim burst out laughing.

“Like in bondage? A safe word?”

The stranger shrugged. “Call it what you want. A password. A trigger word. Anyway, everyone has one.”

“Is that right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And what happens when you use this, ‘safe word’?”

The stranger finally looked at Tim.

“You go back to reality, like you asked.”

Tim nodded, grabbed his drink, and finished it off. He motioned for another, while looking at this curious man.

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“You just wake up?”

“Pretty much.”

“And what happens to you in here then? In ‘virtual reality’?”

The stranger swirled his drink, looking at the way the liquid made strange colours in the light. He put it down without drinking, and continued to smoke.

“You disappear.”

“You disappear?”

“You disappear.”

“Which means…?”

“You stop existing. You never existed. Your whole history, your whole present and whole future, is deleted. You’re no longer part of this world. You’re, well, real again.”

“All because of a safe word.”

“Pretty much.”

“And how do you know your safe word?”

“You don’t. That’s the point.”

“You don’t know it?”

You don’t know it.”

“I don’t know my safe word? What, in case I break out before I die or something?”

“Mm-hm.”

“So how do I find my safe word, just in case?”

“You don’t.”

Tim laughed.

“But I do.”

Tim stopped laughing.

He looked at the stranger, and watched as he sat in silence, staring at the mirror in front him, the smoke trails from his mouth curling into the dark of the bar.

“You know my safe word?”

“I know all the safe words.”

“What, every word? Ever?”

The stranger glared at Tim.

“You want to know your safe word?”

Tim didn’t answer straight away. He thought about this whole conversation, and how his normal, boring evening at Carrie’s Bar had suddenly turned into an interaction with an obvious madman. With these sorts, he never knew that if you played with them long enough, you’d get hurt.

But how hurt could he get with a word?

“Sure,” he said. “What’s my safe word?”

The stranger looked at Tim, said nothing, then uttered a single word.

“Irteera.”

Silence.

“What?”

“Irteera.”

“What is that, German or…?”

“Basque. A language you’d probably never hear in your life.”

“Right… so if that’s my safe word…”

“Why are you still here?”

“Yeah!”

“Because you have to say it, stupid.”

“What, irteera?”

And with that, the stranger was left alone with his smoke and his drink, and Tim was no longer sat next to him. Nor had he a boring office job. He also didn’t have a wife, and she had never even met him, nor least married him. In fact, his friends never knew Tim in the first place, and his family never knew he was born.

Tim no longer existed.

Not here, anyway.

The stranger finished his cigarette, put it out on the bar, and left.

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