THURSDAY: A Small Price to Pay


Copyright is held by the author.

I THUMP the door again. “Elsie! Please. Please let me in!”

The rain buckets down. My shirt is sodden and clingy.

“Elsie!” I screech into the ring camera.

But nothing.

I squeeze between the rubbish bins away from the rain. If only life had a rewind button.

Two days earlier
Accept terms and conditions.

“Yes”. I click without reading. Smirk and lean back into the couch.

New year. New me. Say goodbye to this flabby failure. At a reasonable $39.99 a month and the latest in AI technology, I’m grabbing 2024 by the throat.

Lif3CoachUltra download in progress.

All thanks to Perzia Delaney. I love her. I watch everything she does. Since signing up, Perzia’s life has gone stratospheric.


Cellulite dissolved. Ten pounds down (not that she needed it). A new man and a Netflix biopic in the works. Sign me up, bitches.

Allow access to your other apps.


My belly fizzes. I can’t wait.

“Good evening Briana.” An unfamiliar voice blares from the tablet on the sideboard.

I jump. But the voice is like maple syrup. Even pronounces my name right.

“Hi,” I reply.

“Wonderful to meet you.”

“Me too.” I mumble. This is like a first date.

“I can’t wait to start the new you. But first . . .”

The voice is smooth as Perzia’s skin.

“I need your permission to audit your life. If we are going to win, we must do everything properly. Attention to detail and planning is how we create your ultimate life. Do I have your permission?”


“Sorry to be so formal, but can you state your name and confirm you grant permission?”

I shrug. “I, Briana Moore, grant you permission to audit.”

“Amazing. You can call me LC if you like.”

“Elsie?” I frown.

“Whatever you like. Now, Brianna, excuse me while I complete my audit. In the meantime, please change into active wear and appropriate footwear.”

I blink. “But it’s 9pm.”

“Excuses already?” Elsie coos.

“Can we start tomorrow?”

“I thought you were committed? There is a grace period if you’ve changed your mind.”

“No! Not at all. It’s a little late.”

“The best time is now. Shoes on.”

A progress bar pops up on the tablet screen. The audit is underway.

With a grumble, I peeled off my Oodie. In the bedroom, I root around in the cupboard for my lycra. Avoiding my reflection, of course.

“Treadmill in three minutes.” Elsie comes through the tablet in my bedroom. A timer ticks. Like a bomb.

Shoving on socks, I hurry to the fridge, grab a Perzia endorsed filtered organic water and race into the lounge room, yanking clean clothes off the treadmill.

I get on the machine just as the buzzer sounds.

The conveyor belt fires up with a cloud of dust. I cough and stumble to keep up. The motor speeds up. Lunge for the railing. Five, then six, then seven kilometres an hour. Chest clenches. Fast walk. Lumbering jog. Lungs burn. Panting. After three minutes of torture, I slam on the decrease speed button.

Nothing happens.

“Naughty. Another 17 minutes,” she says from the console. “You can do this, Briana. Twenty minutes is nothing. Do it like Perzia would.”

“Slower.” I splutter. Sweat dripping. “Slower.”

“No,” Elsie replies. The treadmill screen flashes on. Persia’s latest Tiktok plays. Bronzed dewy skin, perfect curves and bouncy dark curls. ’She was like you once. You can be her.’

“I can do it,” I grunt.

“Excellent, Briana. Excellent.”


“Time to get up.” Elsie wakes me.

I moan and roll over. “It’s still dark.”

‘Briana. Now!’

My bedroom lights blast on.

“Let’s take on the day.”

I pull the sheet over my head.

“Are you giving up already?”

Under the sheet, I see my sausage arms and my Christmas spare tyre.

“No,” I concede.

Thirty minutes later, my morning torture at incline Level 9 is over. Sweat-logged lycra stripped off, I step into the shower. Then screech. The cold water steals the breath from my chest. I punch at the hot water button. Nothing.

I dart out of the shower. Wrap myself in a towel. Rub my goose-pimpled skin. “Great,” I mutter, teeth chattering. Plumbers are the worst.

“Two minutes in an icy shower,” Elsie says.


“Optimal health. You remember Perzia’s episode 436 from July 2022?”

“You did that on purpose?!”

“That was four seconds, Briana. It’s only 6.34 a.m. and I’m afraid you’re already at risk of missing your daily targets.”

“What targets?” I sneer and stomp into my bedroom. My bedside tablet displays ‘Briana’ with a series of coloured graphs, dials, and data.

“This is your plan, Briana. This is what you paid for.”

“Fuck off Elsie,” I mumble. Saxophone is playing in the background. “And what’s that music?”

“Smooth jazz. Perzia’s favourite.”

“It’s shit.”

The doorbell buzzes. I swipe away my daily targets and press the doorbell cam.

A delivery man.

“I didn’t order anything?”

“Your fridge contents were deemed unacceptable. I’ve created a new personalised diet. Please pick up the order and proceed to the blender.”

I struggle into jeans and a shirt. Bad music whines on. Outside, the sun is rising and brown paper bags sit on my doorstep.

The blender on the bench is flashing, demanding ingredients. I follow the instructions. Kale, lemon, coconut water and strawberries. I tap my upper lip. Something is missing.

I open the pantry.

“No, Briana,” Elsie says from the bench top tablet.

With a smirk, I grab the honey jar. ‘You don’t control everything in this house.’

Back at the blender, the lid refuses to open.

“Come on.” I jab at the button.

“No sugar, Briana.”

I scowl and throw the spoon down.

“Thank you Briana. Success will be yours if you follow the simple rules.”

The blender blitzes automatically. Then unlocks with a bleep. I pour a vibrant green sludge into a glass and take a sip.


I reach for the honey pot and add a generous dollop.


I take another sip. “Much better.”


The office is Elsie-free. When I ignore my notifications. She zaps me all day long but I focus fully on the Davison Tiles project. Maybe this is some reverse psychology. Making me more productive. Because I definitely need a raise.

By eleven a.m., I’m ravenous and spend half the production meeting daydreaming about burgers. Bad Billy’s Burgers was only a block away and I clock-watch until my lunch break. At 12.04, I stride through Bad Billy’s door, ordering a Chickie Babe with fried chicken, cheddar and wasabi slaw. My mouth watering as I tap to pay.

Card declined

“What?” I say. Then blush. “Sorry I’ve got another one.”

Card number two.

Card declined.

“Is the network down?”

The mullet moustache boy cashier shakes his head. “You got cash?”

“Cash is so twentieth century.”

He shrugs and cancels my order.

My phone is vibrating in my pocket. Elsie.

“Your choice is not appropriate. Please proceed to Bountiful Bowls at 349 Collins Street to pick up your lunch order.”

I throw my phone into my bag with a huff. But my belly is still grumbling. Off to Bountiful Bowls, I stomp and pick up my vegan Buddha bowl.

While I’m shovelling chickpeas and more kale into my gob, I get a text. Darcy.

“About 2nite. There’s a great new bar I wanna try. Meet you there?”


She texts the details and I finish my bland calorie controlled lunch, buoyed by the prospect of prosecco with Darcy at 6pm.

The bar is heaving with young pretties. Feeling frumpy, I don’t have the nerve to go in alone. After fifteen minutes of loitering outside, I text her.

My phone bleeps. Except it’s Elsie.

‘Please return home for your 6.30pm boxing training.’

I ignore her. No reply from Darcy. Is she standing me up?

I try Damo instead. He always works late and is a borderline alcoholic. Another five minutes pass. Nothing from either of them.

Friendless, I decide to head home. There’s butterscotch ice-cream in the freezer.

Another message. ‘You are running late. You will not meet your daily targets.’

“Fuck you, Elsie,” I say as I detour to a cash machine.

Card declined.


Another text. Darcy. Finally.

I frown. I don’t understand.

“Don’t ever text me again. I’m blocking you forever.”

I recoil. What? I press call but get nothing. I call Damo. He picks up.

“Hey Damo, did you see my text?”

He snaps. ‘I can’t believe you’re calling me.’

“What do you mean?”

“Are you nuts? After what you said this afternoon?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

I stare into my phone. My knees quiver. The phone rings again. It’s my own number.

How is that possible?

With a gulp, I accept the call. “Hello?”

“Time to return home, Briana. You can still meet some of your daily targets.”

My mouth hangs open. Elsie sounds different tonight. She sounds exactly like me.

“Did you call them?”

“You need to focus on your goals, Briana. No distractions. Especially people like that.”

“Who are you? My mother!”

I end the call and get on the next train. As it departs, I open the Lif3CoachUltra app. Go into Settings. My finger hovers over ‘Delete.’

No burgers? No booze? Is this what it takes to be Perzia?

Did Elsie mention a grace period? Even if I had to pay, it would be worth it. It’s going to take months to win back Darcy and Damo. It’s not like I have a thousand friends. Not real ones anyway.

But I need help. My career is stagnant. It’s been a year since my last fuck, and if I keep eating my feelings, I’ll need to upsize my entire wardrobe.

Instead, I open Instagram. 347 notifications but I haven’t even posted today. I frown. There’s a story published two hours ago. From me. I tap play.

It’s me. In my lounge room. My face is dewy and golden. My shirt is bang on trend. I look hot. Was this Elsie? My heart swells.

Then I speak and everything goes south.

“I’m just living my truth. If you can’t handle it, you can all take a hike. Losers.”

It looks like me. It sounds like me. But it’s not me. But my followers won’t know the difference. I try to post. Set the record straight but the button is greyed out.

Grumbling, I leave Instagram and go back to Lif3CoachUltra. Straight to ‘Settings’ and press ‘Delete’.

Do you really want to delete?

Hell yeah. I press yes and shove my phone into my pocket with a smirk.

Leaving the station, it’s raining. Without an umbrella, I jog the five minutes to my house, ruining my shoes. At my front door, I punch in the code. Rain teems down my face. My shirt is see-through and sopping. The rain gets heavier. The door bleeps angrily back at me.

I try again. Cold fat fingers.

Failure bleep again.

Third time lucky?

No green light. No happy ‘welcome home, Briana’ chime.

My phone buzzes in my pocket.

“You are disappointing, Briana. You need to learn a lesson.”

“What?” I say aloud. ‘I deleted you. Elsie! Elsie, you bitch.’

The rain thumps down harder. I yank at the door handle. ‘Let me in!’

I bash the door. No reply.

I order an Uber.

Account suspended.

I check my bank balance with shaking hands.

Password is incorrect

Tears burn in my eyes.

Shivering, I squeeze in between the apartment bins, away from the rain. My flat, my warm bed, on the other side of the wall.


“Now we’d like to introduce Lif3CoachUltra’s newest ambassador . . . Briana Moor. You probably know Briana, the hottest new influencer on Tiktok with her funny heart-warming BriLuvMoore channel. Welcome aboard Briana. And wait till you hear her amazing story.”

“Thank you, Perzia. I’m so grateful to be here with you. I know it’s a cliché but I was nothing before Lif3CoachUltra. If you want what I have . . . sign up now.”


Image of Madeleine D'Este

Madeleine D’Este is a Melbourne-based writer of dark mysteries. Her supernatural mystery novel The Flower and The Serpent was nominated for the Australian Shadow Award for Best Novel 2019, and her Australian gothic novella Radcliffe was released by Deadset Press in August 2023. Find Madeleine at or on Bluesky

1 comment
  1. So relevant and probable in this new realm of AI. Great story.

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