Updated: May 1, 2022
Q: If we only had a finite amount of 'flirt' in us to find our mate, how would you use it?
Chapter 1: What the eye sees
The strap hung loose around her twig-thin wrist. Pale and fragile, her arm seemed to falter under the weight of the watch as Lillie lifted it to adjust the strap. It was the second time this month that she had had to tighten it. The strain of the new term was having its effect on her.
She blinked, then blinked again. Her eyes were dry and her contact lenses were irritating her. She leaned back and administered the eye drops. Temporary relief.
She had been to Flirt School in the holidays before university; her parents had made sure of that but the pressure was still too much. It wasn’t that she didn’t know the theory inside out; she was a straight A student even there but IRL was something all together different. She had started to wake up regularly at 4am since the governmental Coming-of-Age ceremony. That’s when they had given her the biometric contact lenses and allocated her Flirt Quota. Coming from a ‘good family’ she had a little more than others but still, its finite nature scared her.
She wasn’t ready to turn it on yet. She didn’t want him to know that she was still intact. There was a fine line between purity and experience. Boys liked a little bit of both.
The clock struck eight. Lillie tied up her hair and buttoned her coat. She flung her rucksack on her back and, carrying the weight of the world, headed out.
He was already there, in the front row, brow furrowed. She wondered what thoughts were going through his mind; if she featured in any of them. She sighed. Of course she didn’t. What was she thinking? He barely saw her. He only saw the shiny ones, the ones who used their Flirt on him.
She sat down at the back of the class and removed her coat. The professor walked in and started handing back last week’s assignment. A ‘B’ landed on her lap. She frowned. This was unlike her. Perhaps the sleepless nights were finally taking their toll. She looked over at him. He looked pleased with his result, as did the redhead, who had her arms around him in a congratulatory squeeze. Lillie blinked twice and an image of the girl and boy appeared at the far right corner of her vision. A digital countdown popped up next to each of their picture perfect photos. Every time the girl laughed and flirted with him, her number went down. His clicked down towards zero as he reciprocated, delighting in their mutual flirtation. Lillie blinked to turn it off. She couldn’t bear this any longer. When was her journey going to begin? She had been waiting for the right time, the right everything, before she began her countdown but the more she waited, the more frightening it became to make the leap. If she carried on like this, he would be taken, gone forever before she could try her Flirt on him.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. It was time. She visualised an ‘on’ button and lit it up. Suddenly the room stopped as everyone paused with frozen stares, their lenses announcing her virgin intent. She wasn’t expecting that. This wasn’t covered in her flirt classes. All eyes were on her now. She blushed from the attention and sunk deeper in to her chair.
The redhead was the first to notice Lillie’s number and slithered over to her. Twisting her hair around her finger, she fluttered her eyes and introduced herself. We haven’t met, she said, although Lillie knew that they had. Many times. The redhead mentioned a house party that weekend and asked if Lillie would like to come as her guest? Lillie blinked in surprise. The countdown on the girl’s clock popped up in Lillie’s vision and ticked down. Lillie marvelled at the way she didn’t appear to be frightened to waste away her Flirt on her. Her precious Flirt, disappearing at a rapid rate, like water swirling down a plug hole. She must be so confident that she was going to snare him soon, Lillie imagined.
Lillie looked over at him, wondering if he would be at the party. He suddenly caught her eye. She looked away, then glanced back. He had noticed her. Finally seen her. The redhead saw the interaction and smiled. Do you know each other, she asked? Lillie shook her head, crimson. Let me introduce you. She beckoned to him. I’m Ben, he said.
He was going to be at the party. That was certain. Nothing else mattered to Lillie any more. The ‘B’, her parents, nothing. Her time had come.
She had chosen him the moment she had seen him; had known that he was the one. They were in the same philosophy class and she had fallen for the way he argued his point with such passion. So unlike her father, who… Lillie sighed. She felt guilty every time she thought badly of him. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him because she did, dearly, but love sometimes wasn’t enough. If only the governmental initiative had been in place in her parents’ time. They would have thought more carefully about who to settle with; but then Lillie wouldn’t have existed.
She walked in to the party, heart racing, her pulse deafening. She looked for him but her eyes wouldn’t focus. Nerves. A drink would help. She headed for the bar and was immediately engulfed by the redhead who showered Lillie with flattery. Oh my god, you look so hot, she said. Ben won’t be able to keep his hands off you. Lillie blushed. That’s what you want, isn’t it, asked the girl. Lillie didn’t know what to say. I could help you make it happen, said the redhead. Just a small favour in return. Lillie looked at her in confusion. What do you mean?
The girl smiled and leant into Lillie. You can have Ben if you give me all of your Flirt. I know you’ve wanted him for a while. You won't need it once you have him. What do you say?
Lillie froze. It was prohibited to exchange, sell or buy Flirt from one another. Unless you were in the Middle North. The university expelled students for far less.
That’s ridiculous, Lillie responded. How can you give me Ben; he’s not yours to give. The redhead smiled to herself. I’ve got him wrapped around my little finger, don’t you know; besides he’s running low, I’m sure you’ve noticed. He’s going to run out soon. He’s ready to settle.
Lillie thought hard. She could see Ben heading towards them. He’s so beautiful, she thought. He could be hers. All hers. He was everything she wanted and she would make sure that she was everything he needed. It would work. Wouldn’t it? What should she do?
Chapter 2: A total eclipse of the eye
Lillie drank in the moment. She couldn’t quite believe what was happening to her. Life could not get any better than this. It was everything she had wished for and more. Here she was, with him and she was his sole focus of attention. Oh my God, the way he looked at her; it made her breathless.
She flicked her hair and hoped that the look she was returning was as seductive as the one he was giving her. It was all very new to her, this flirting business and she was a bit nervous that she wasn’t doing it right. It was fun; exhilarating in fact. No one had told her how much she would love it and how natural it felt. She had excelled in the theory but had always felt a bit self-conscious when it came to the role playing part of the class. She never volunteered to go to the front and perform for the others. If you didn’t put your hand up, you could just hide away. Now she knew what she had been missing.
An image of her parents flashed in her mind. The cold scene of her mother waiting for her father to return each night as his reluctance for home-cooked domesticity increased with each day. Lillie looked up at Ben. She didn’t want that.
Another drink, he asks? Sure, why not, she flirts. The warmth of the margaritas illuminated the room into technicolour. She had never experienced such colours before. This must be how it felt to be alive. Suddenly she knew what she had to do.
Hold that drink, she taps his arm. I’ll be back. Lillie rushed into the crowd and scanned the room. Cacophony smiled back at her. She finally found the redhead in the far corner, laughing coquettishly with another tall, handsome guy. Lillie blinked. The redhead’s digital countdown appeared in the corner of her eye, whirling down to near zero. Lillie found herself bristling with contempt. How dare she think it was a dead cert; wasting her Flirt like that? She wouldn’t be laughing when she hits rock bottom. She headed over to the redhead and pulled her over. I’m not doing it, Lillie shouted over the music. The redhead stared at her. What are you talking about? Lillie repeated herself. I’m not doing it. I’m not giving up my Flirt. I’m going to do it on my own.
The redhead burst into laughter. What do you mean, you’re not doing it? Don’t you want him? Lillie shook her head. Not like this. Not unless it’s real. I want him to fall for me, for me. The redhead continued laughing. Do you really think he would go for you if it wasn’t for your Flirt? How naive are you? Something in Lillie burned. An ignition of guttural power that she never knew existed flew out of her. Watch me, she snarled.
Lillie headed back to Ben. I’m ready for my drink, she said. The redhead watched as he passed it to her. As Lillie took a sip, the redhead caught Ben’s eyes and nodded at him. He nodded back with his eyes. A silent understanding. He leant into Lillie and whispered something that delighted her, as he slipped something into her drink. Laughing forcefully loud for the redhead’s sake, Lillie downed her drink, inviting the headiness of intoxication to take her back to the place she had just been before the conversation.
Everyone knows that you can never go back to a good dream once you’ve come out of it, however hard you try. Lillie tried but she couldn’t quite get back the rhythm she had with Ben. Instead a shadow seemed to be falling on her. The colours dampened and the room started to drain to grey. Like an eclipse, she was suddenly in darkness. She swayed onto Ben’s arm, her balance unsteady. He held her up. Let’s get you some air, he said, supporting her and gently leading her out. Suddenly the cold air slapped Lillie’s cheeks hard, knocking her back. Everything faded to black.
A flutter of light, undulating between darkness. Daylight peeped through the curtains as the morning breeze blew through. Lillie opened her eyes slowly, blinking to focus. She was in her bed; same clothes as the night before. Alone.
Something didn’t feel quite right. She blinked to check her Flirt balance. All there. She had heard of unassuming students waking up after a night of drink to find their Flirt stolen. Her head hurt and her mouth had a soapy taste. She had been drinking but surely not so much to feel like this? She showered and headed out, looking for Ben.
She found him in the campus dining hall with the redhead sitting on his lap. Her heart contracted. She felt a shiver go up the back of her neck as her body became consumed in a sudden cold sweat. Can I have a word with you please, she said to him. A look passed between him and the redhead before he stood up and walked over to her. Can we go somewhere private? Sure.
Lillie attempted to flirt away his coldness but nothing came. I wouldn’t bother if I were you, he said. It’s all gone. What’s all gone, asked Lillie? Your Flirt, came back the chilled response.
Lillie’s cold sweat returned with a vengeance. She went numb. No flirt? How? She blinked to check her balance. It was all still there. Ben smirked. Of course it looks like it’s all still there. You made the wrong choice, baby.
Lillie ran. She ran. Fight-or-flight were the only options at that moment for her and her body had chosen the latter. Fighting back tears, she ran towards the playing fields where the A-team were practising hockey. She ran straight to a brunette, sobbing. Help me Audrey, please. They’ve taken my Flirt.
In the girls’ locker room, Audrey and another girl, Lucy wrapped a blanket around Lillie’s shivering shoulders. Captain of the Hockey Squad, Lucy was used to consoling. It’s going to be okay, she said. Audrey nodded. Lucy’s right. We can work through this. Lucy gave Lillie a hug. It happened to Abigail last month. They exchanged the contact lenses so it looked like her Flirt was still intact, even though it wasn’t, and hacked into her account to transfer her Flirt to theirs. Lillie looked at Lucy. Ben did that? No, it was a different guy. That tall, exchange student who’s now gone. He was always hanging around with that redhead, don’t know her name. Do you? Lillie shrugged. She was more interested in Abigail. What happened to her? Did she get her Flirt back? Lucy hesitated, then shook her head. She left. She got a visit from the redhead and the very next day, she packed up and was gone. Just like Melissa and Eva before her. I don’t know what she had on them but she can’t get away with this. She can’t go around stealing everyone’s Flirt. You have to do something Lillie.
Lillie put her head in her hands. She was not the confrontational type. So far, she had excelled and lived life behind a shroud. She had experienced one night of Flirt, maybe that was enough? Look at her parents, maybe being single wasn’t a bad thing after all? Lillie sighed. She had done nothing wrong though. It all seemed so unfair. What should she do?
Chapter 3: Blind sided
Stumbling through the throng of students, Lillie wore her hair over her face like a protective shield. Numb and raw, she pin balled from one body to another as she swam against the tide of the crowd. Averting her eyes from the panorama of stares, like a child she believed that if she saw no one, no one would see her.
It had been a week since she had lost all of her Flirt and she felt listless. Something in her had died and she didn’t care. Nothing mattered any more. The technicolour had returned to black and white.
She didn’t mean to but she caught sight of Ben. Look away, look away but her heart wanted the pain. Her eyes didn’t disappoint. Tears welled up as she watched him lean into the new girl next to him and whisper something. The girl laughed. Loudly. Something about that sound suddenly struck Lillie’s heart. She recognised it immediately as a moment of Flirtation. Of letting someone in. An instance of vulnerability. Mottled with pleasure. A feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of being alive.
Lillie ran. It was all too much. The pain; the helplessness, the anger inside that oscillated between grief and guilt. She couldn’t let them do this to anyone else. Stripped bare. Forever exposed. She had to do something.
Pulling herself together, she went in search of her friends. Audrey was chatting with Lucy in the sports hall. They welcomed her with open arms. You’re finally ready aren’t you? Lillie nodded.
Lucy was raring to go. I’ve been watching them and that trust fund kid, the cute one, is somehow involved. His Dad works in Silicon Valley. Has the technical know-how at his fingertips. We need to find him.
He wasn’t hard to find. He was in the bar, buying a round of drinks. Make mine a double said Audrey, sidling over to him. Lucy sat on his other side and switched on her best smile. Lillie tried to join in but without any Flirt, she looked ridiculous. She persevered. She was going to do this. What did they say at Flirt School? Flatter. That’s right, flatter. I hear you’re quite the tech pro, she said. He laughed; are you trying to flirt with me? Lillie blushed. He paused and studied her. I know you, he said. Skin prickled. You’re Red’s latest victim. He looked deep into her eyes, so deep that Lillie squirmed. Awkward. A pause, then…I’m sorry about that, he said. You were just a name when she asked me. His stare burned into her. Intense. Fervent. Maybe I wouldn’t have if I had met you. Lille felt herself heating up.
Lucy broke the moment. Red? Who’s Red? The trust fund shrugged. I don’t know; it’s just what we call her. We? There’s a group of us who hack for people like her. People like her? She’s not the only one? Trust fund laughed. Of course not, this place is teeming with them. We transfer, dig, anything they ask us. He laughed, proud. Lucy found herself shaking. Arsehole. You know you’re screwing with people’s lives don’t you? You sit here so smug, as if you’re playing a game. This is real. She’s real, pointing at Lillie. Look at what you’ve done to her. Lucy trembled with anger. Audrey put her arms around her friend and held her. You’re worse than them, Lucy brawled. Wait till the authorities get their hands on you.
Trust fund looked away. Something stirred in him. Guilt? Sadness? Remorse? He looked at Lucy. You can report us if you like, he said. Though our families will find a way of getting us out of it. They always do. He paused, then turned to Lillie. I really am sorry. Genuinely. It’s all just been names to me…data…nothing more. You wouldn’t understand but I was doing it to…he hesitated. The bravado and arrogance in him slowly dissipated. Lillie stared at him. Yes, why do you do it? You don’t need to. You have everything. What could you possibly get out of this? Trust fund bit his lip and looked in to her eyes again. Is everything enough?
Lillie thought of her parents. They settled on enough. She thought about the Flirt allocation. That was meant to be enough. Until she lost it. Actually, taken from her. It wasn’t her fault. She was the victim here, she needed to remember that.
What is it that you are looking for, asked Lillie? Does it even exist? Trust fund thought for a moment, then nodded. I felt it once, he said. The first time I got into real trouble. The first time I came alive. He smiled to himself. Maybe that’s why I do it.
Lillie understood. She had felt it once too. Last night. When he had looked at her in that way. When she had come alive.
Lillie grabbed trust fund’s hand. I think we can help each other. Lucy, eyes wide, started to protest but stopped when she saw Lillie’s stern look. You definitely owe me, Lillie continued. Big time, added Lucy. Hey steady on, trust fund laughed pulling his hand away from Lillie’s in mock jest, we’ve only just met. Lillie found herself going red again. I’m kidding, he smiled. Tell me. He looked deep into her eyes with such intensity that she had to look away. Get a room, murmured Audrey. Lillie threw an angry glance at her. Trust fund took back her hand. I’m sorry, we’re just teasing. Tell us.
The classroom bustled with pre-class noise. Silence pervaded as the professor walked in and headed for the white board. Who wants to go first with this week’s assignment? Lillie’s hand went up. Surprised, the professor gestured for her to come down. Taking a deep breath, Lillie stepped forward.
Heart racing, pulse deafening - like the time she walked into the party in search of Ben - Lillie began. Aristotle stated that justice was the correction of what is inequitable, she started. We live in a community where a small group controls us by manipulating our Flirt. I was one of those victims, deceived by what I thought was a genuine interest. Lillie turned her glance towards Ben. He looked away. Lillie continued her attention on him. Did I deserve it, she asked? Did I do something wrong? Some of the students in the class started shaking their heads in sympathy. The professor frowned. This was no place for self-centred ramblings; must be stopped. Lillie turned to the professor. Your daughter, Abigail, was another of these victims. She froze at her daughter’s name, visibly softened and then nodded for Lillie to continue.
My Flirt was stolen from me by two people. They’re here in this room right now and they know who they are. Some of you also know who they are but haven’t done anything about it. Maybe you’re scared, maybe you’re hoping that someone else will deal with it. I don’t hold it against you. I understand. Maybe I would have done the same.
They’re not the only perpetrators. There are others out there. Playing with the system for their own good. Manipulating us for their own gain. For what? So that they can come alive with the Flirt of others? So that they can feel power over us? It always comes back to power. Power in the hands of a few, while the rest are left helpless. Don’t you think it’s time to make a change? Don’t you think it’s time we took our stand?
Someone in the back stood up and started clapping. Another joined. Then another, until the whole room, apart from Ben and Red were on their feet clapping. Both recoiled and tried to leave the room but were soon barricaded in.
Lillie put up her hand to silence the room. What should we do about them? Should we take away their Flirt? See how they like it? The whole room erupted into a roar of war cries, shouting for justice, crying out for blood.
Lillie beckoned trust fund down from the back of the class. He strode to the front, opened his laptop and brought up his screen on to the class projector. With a nod from Lillie, he typed something and the profiles of Ben and Red sprung up on the big screen. One tap and their Flirt counts clicked down to zero. Rapturous cheers rippled around the room.
Lillie gestured for quiet. Yes, we can bring them down, she said. Yes, we can pay them back for what they’ve done to us but they’re not the only ones to blame. We should actually feel sorry for them. They’re the victims here too. They’re simply pawns of a system where control is presented as a virtue. Are we better off for having our Flirt limited? Are we making better choices because of it?
Murmurs around the room grew louder as Lillie’s words made their impact. Lucy and Audrey scanned the crowd and nodded to each other in satisfaction.
Maybe it’s time we put our fingers up at those really in power and take back control, cried Lillie. Maybe it’s time we were responsible for ourselves. Who’s with me?
The voices around the room crescendoed into a rebel yell. Fists punched the air and people started stamping their feet. Lillie turned to trust fund and nodded.
If you are with me, we all need to do it together, she yelled. We need to shut down this system one by one. We can all do it, if we put our minds to it. We can all do it, if we do it together.
Trust fund darted up on to the professor’s desk. He revelled in the buzz and passion stirring up around him. He addressed the crowd. Turn on your Flirt countdown, he boomed. Close your eyes and picture the escape symbol on the left hand corner of your screen. Press it for ten seconds and then let go, he shouted. Quickly imagine the control button on the right hand corner and drag it to the bin. Don’t stop now, keep going. Drag it. Drag it until it disappears.
Suddenly various profiles of the various students appeared on the big screen with red disclaimers across them stating Flirt disabled. One by one they popped up, splashed with red. Red after red after red. Lillie looked around the room and saw that someone was live streaming this act of rebellion. Lucy and Audrey ran over and hugged Lillie. It was happening. They were making their stand.
Trust fund came over to them, a look of excitement shining in his eyes. Thank you, he said. They’re coming. They know what we’ve done. It feels great….but we need to go.
Grabbing Lillie by the hand, he dragged her out of the room, down the corridor and pulled her into a waiting car. Drive, he shouted at his driver as the distant sirens grew louder. They suddenly burst into laughter as they squeezed each other’s hand. We did it. We really did it. A look passed between them. Lillie blushed and pulled away. Trust fund smiled and took back her hand. You were great, he said. You were fearless back there. Lille smiled back. She felt something stirring inside her. An instance of vulnerability. Mottled with pleasure. A feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of being alive.
She laughed. Are you trying to flirt with me, she asked? Yes, he replied. I am.