[Slight edit for some off dialogue]The breeze comes in, slow and over the beach. I am beneath a parasol, ice cold Peroni in the one hand and slim paperback in the other. Jade lies next to me in a bikini, early signs of sunburn forming on skin beaded with sweat and seawater. She’s on her phone, scrolling through various feeds; Jade was never much of a reader but you know what they say about opposites. Today was one of those beautiful days with no structure, the type that takes you wherever it wants to.Jade turns toward me and smiles. It’s hard to believe we’ve been married for two years, every look into those tawny eyes still feels novel. I smile back and that’s all the communication we need, turning to look at the waves breaking across the sand. Children chase each other into the foam and recoil at the cold, splashing each other. Dads with paunches and carpets of body hair lag behind. I down the dregs of my beer and toss the bottle into a cooler full of empties.“Careful or you’ll end up having to clean the broken glass out of that.” Jade says with a playful shove. “Any word from Mark? Spending a Saturday like this indoors like a recluse.”“Not sure, he hasn’t read my messages.”“Come on. How far away is he? He still living downtown?”“Think so, last I remember. You see that wave? Never seen one that tall.”“You guys were childhood friend and you don’t remember his address? Nice you keep in touch.”“I do, I was there for something recently. Can’t remember.”“So, where’s he at? We can take him out for drinks after this, there’s a place that serves the best caipirinhas… Shit.” She’s noticed the sunburn now, rubbing at the skin with a sigh.“If it’s any consolation, you can pull that burn off.”“I’ll be back in five, going to see if I can pick up some sunscreen for damage control. We can try calling Mark, let your phone do the remembering.”She’s off, leaving me with a hell of a view. I’m still watching her absentmindedly when a shadow falls over me. A man in stained rags extends a small empty coffee cup, shouting out the slurred and incoherent mess you normally hear from someone who plans to use your change to spike any vein that hasn’t hidden itself from his debilitating drug habit. I give the usual lie about not carrying cash and he raises the volume. Now people have switched from curious glances to firm interest in their phones or the sand between their feet. When he begins slapping the bald spot on the crown of his head and shaking with fury people begin to move out of ear sight. He flops onto Jade’s towel, burying his cup in the sand. I’m about to reach into the cooler for an empty bottle when I notice his eyes. Clear, light brown. Sharp and piercing. When his mouth opens again there is no confusion.“If you eat the sand, it’s game over.”“What?”Just like that, he throws a cup of sand into my face. I’m sputtering, wiping my eyes and thinking I’m lucky not to have caught a used condom. It takes me a few seconds to notice, trying to clear my mouth. Brown sugar? If I’m not imagining sand tasting like brown sugar, I can’t explain a seemingly homeless drug addict sat across from me emptying another portion of sand into his mouth.“How much do they know about Dryden? What did you tell them?”“Dryden? Mark?”“What did she ask you? I need you to focus.”“Did you just eat sand?”“You know that was brown sugar, you know this is all brown sugar. Again, focus. What did they ask?”“Who?”“Phone numbers, known acquaintances, addresses, a fucking shoe size.”“I…”“Pay attention. Whatever the bitch called herself this time. Jeanine, Jessica, something with a J. She likes J names.”“Jade?”“You’re on a beach, how did you get here?”“I took the train? She drove?”“Rhetorical question. You don’t remember coming here because there’s nothing to remember. You are in a simulation, one designed to extract secrets from party dissidents. I’m our man on the inside. I change small details to disrupt the illusion. Parasols with no shade, sand that tastes like brown sugar. Dryden doesn’t exist, he’s code for a safe house. We trained against this extraction method, which is why you can’t remember the address of a supposed childhood friend. We’re working on getting you out but we need to know where you are. You won’t remember how you got here, but can you remember where you were before?”“I don’t… sand…”“Fuck. I cannot stress this enough. When she gets back, act normal. Think about where you were before and when you have it, go to a phone booth. Tell her you’re going to call Dryden and your phone is dead. Get in the booth and hold the receiver to your ear, dial no numbers, wait 20 seconds. After tha-” Red mist as his head explodes, coating me in the gore. Jade stands behind, ejecting the spent shotgun shell. “Fucked up my whole J name thing. How about we do a clean reset, back to marital bliss and all that.” She’s laughing now, licking blood spatter around her mouth.“Jade?”“Save us the trouble and tell us where your friends are? No?” She raises the barrel. “Twenty more trials and this beach becomes your reality, brown sugar and all. I’ll remember the sunscreen this time.”Bang.