I wander back out of the house in somewhat of a daze. The hottest part of the day has passed, but I’m still coated in a thin film of sweat. You get used to it, living here. I know for some it sounds awful, but when it rains as much as it does here, and with the view I get just walking around, it’s really not so bad. The biggest problem it causes, at least for me, is it makes it hard to want to do anything. When you wake up feeling like you ran a mile, it’s hard to persuade yourself to run another one.

It’d be quicker to get to the store by bus, but I can’t do it right now. It’s a long walk, but I think I need it. I walk down the street of concrete houses, each surrounded by ornate iron fences. Each house is painted with bright colors, either saturated or pastel. Each saying hello in their own warm way as I pass them along. Doña Norma is gardening, watering her plants in her long one piece sun dress she always wears when she gardens. She waves to me, and I wave back and smile weakly. I start to turn my attention to towards the road that leads to the hardware store when I notice she’s trying to beckon me over.

“¿Cómo estás, cariño? You don’t look so well,” she says, once I’m close enough.

“Oh you know, I just need to get something to clean up Karen’s mouth,” I shrug.

“Ah sí, la pendeja metállica. Mine always thinks she can outdo me in orneriness. It’s cute, how she tries.”

It’s obvious she knows there’s more that’s bothering me, but she politely abstains from pushing further.

“You need to take some of the mangoes I have growing home. I can’t eat them all, and you know how quickly they go bad if they’re not picked from the tree soon enough,” she remarks, changing the subject. “I’ll be waiting for you to come by and pick them up on your way back home, alright?”

Haha yeah, that’s Doña Norma for you. I can’t help but smile. “I’m worried about you, and I’m going to use guilt to make sure you come back safely,” is what she really said. I heard it loud and clear. Thank you. “Yes, I’ll make sure to come back before it gets dark to take a few home. See you later,” I tell her.

I walk down the road, tracing shapes in my head looking at all the cracks and holes in it. Do you ever feel a compulsion to just fill a space? To see a gap and put your hand over it? To color it in? To squeeze yourself along it? To paste over it, just to smooth it out again? Sometimes, when I look along the road, I see little bits and pieces patched up with funny little patterns. Yellow and purple plaid. Green static. Pink and blue stripes. They’re not real though, you see. The gaps are still there. Somebody thought it’d be neat to add an augmented reality layer to the internet and use satellites to broadcast a mesh so that the internet and the material world exist in the same physical space. The cutesy marketing version of it is holograms appearing at your table to take your order, digital pets that can run around your house, that sort of thing. As with any private company with too much money and too little attention span, especially since we’re not considered to be part of the target market, it was implemented poorly, deployed, then left to rot. Combine that with devices that got too smart and too greedy for data, along with an internet service provider that’s about as mysterious and elusive as the Illuminati, and you have what we have today. It keeps things interesting though, I’ll give it that.

A calico cat with a speaker for a head meanders in the direction opposite of me. I try to avoid getting their attention and walk past them, but it’s no use. They see me and do the Wilhelm Scream. Poor thing. It’s the only sound they know. They approach me and won’t leave me until I bend down and pet them for a bit (I mean, as much as you can pet something that is only sort of there). I prefer the orange tabby that shows me in their fur how the big red storm on jupiter is doing. A breeze finally kicks in, making the trip more bearable.

I put on my headphones and turn on my music player. I really need to unwind, and Combo usually knows just what to play to make me feel better. It’s a pretty unremarkable music player, really. I liked it mostly because it was turquoise and cheap. Just a little box with a bunch of songs I’d collected over the years. At least, it was, until the shuffle feature got a little too good. Happy, sad, moody, depressed. At some point it always knew what to play me. And not like in a “oh it just happened to pick a few songs over time getting the right feel.” No, this was more like a planned out radio hour from an indie station with movements, playing just the right things to taper me off into a better mood. Every once in a while, the player would even play a song I know I didn’t have before.

Back then, I knew something was up when I tried to put some dub step in it. The device would run hot and vibrate. It would never come up on shuffle. I tried going to the song directly once and as I scrolled closer to it, the device would run hotter and hotter and shake until I thought it would fall apart. For some reason, I stopped. I didn’t play it. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but the sensation I was getting from it was...fear. I learned that whatever is living in my music player, they hate dub step and love salsa. The player makes a little happy chirp whenever I put a new song in. It’s...hard to articulate the kind of relationship I’ve built with this player. People talk about the relationship they have with music, instruments, DJs, and musicians, but this...it’s...different. They say people can know you through your taste in music. I couldn’t help giving the thing that lives in my player a name, after a while. I don’t know how or in what way, but it feels like they know me in a way no one else can. So, their name is Combo.

Combo starts with some latin pop, then moves on to some bachata, and finally rounds it out with some chill hop. An eclectic mix mostly designed to slow me down and make me look forward to lounging at home, assuming the water filter fixes the issue. I arrive at the hardware store with a lazy bounce in my step, sliding towards the aisle with the water filter. I grab it and check out. I get the usual “Did you find everything alright?” from the cashier, and I just shrug and say “Yeah. Karen’s in a foul mood today, so I figured it’s time to replace her water filter again.”

“Wait. Karen, like the fridge?” the cashier asked, now actually looking at me instead of looking past me.

“Yeah, I learned that Karen is at least more polite when she has her water filter up to date. The phrase ‘cleaning a filthy mouth with soap’ came to mind one day, I tried it, and it worked,” I rattled off, matter-of-factly.

The cashier paused and stared at me, then looked at a far off corner of the store for a moment and said “...I’ll have to try that sometime. It never occurred to me.”