[Image Credit: Colette Pope Heldner]
I am writing this because I do not know what is happening. Maybe I am falling in love. Maybe I am falling off the radar. I am writing this because the camera on my phone is broken in a way I cannot comprehend.
It began this morning at the Atchafalaya Basin when I tried taking a picture of myself and the swamplands to send to Maggie. She loves that kind of thing posted online. I would avoid it all if I could, but I put a bit up for Maggie. My phone was new, so not until I got to the back of Best Buy and lifted the metal knocker on the large, wooden door under the neon tubes bent to spell “Geek Squad” did I think fixing my phone might turn into some kind of hassle. Before I could bring the knocker down, hydraulics sighed and the door opened inwards, pulling me into a stairwell. I held the knocker, debating how badly I needed my phone to work. My warranty had cost me, so I walked down two steps and the door shut.
A lightless spiral staircase enclosed in rough-hewn stone walls lead me to the bottom and a stone-laid corridor. Sconces lined the walls between closed wooden doors. The lit torches barely helped, so I had my phone out like a flashlight. Most of my phone still worked. Even most of the camera feed looked right, which was part of the problem. At the basin that morning, I had watched myself on screen to find a good angle that also captured the swamp. As I posed for the photo for Maggie, though, the image of me on screen started lagging while everything else kept moving fine—currents in the water, birds in the air. Strange software. I would not have cared about getting it fixed so much except that Maggie and I had a date tonight and I thought she might want me to take a picture with the new phone.
Up ahead, the fire in one torch turned green. The door next to it opened when I neared, so I looked in. Light reached only a few steps past the threshold while a draft streamed out. I walked forward. The air felt moist and carried the sound of running water. The room was dank with a mineral smell. In the darkness, an ease came over me. The cool, damp air felt crystalline, preserved from a fresher time. Not edenic, just better. The drinking water from a hose in my youth. The air that I imagine still circulates atop remote peaks. Ice frozen eons ago.
A soft spotlight came on from about thirty paces in revealing a rectangular desk with two chairs on the opposite side and one chair for me, all hard-backed wood. Another spot light, blue, shone on a stone fixture behind the desk, illuminating the small waterfall feature freestanding in the otherwise dark. A woman stepped into the spotlight next to the chair on the right, then a man to the chair on the left. They wore identical uniforms of collared white button-ups, black slacks, orange suspenders, and shiny black shoes. The conversation went something like this:
“Good greetings, sir. Have a seat and we’ll begin.” The woman spoke first. I sat down and a spotlight shone on my face from somewhere in the darkness to the right of the waterfall. Another hot light came on from the left and I winced.
“Too much for you, sir?” asked the man. He tapped the tabletop, and the wood veneer dissolved into a screen. He brought up lighting controls and softened the spotlight until I nodded. “Would you like the waterfall increased?”
“Could you make the draft a bit stronger?” I asked.
“People usually like the waterfall—but alright.”
We negotiated the controls for some time, getting the lighting level, waterfall volume, and draft temperature to my satisfaction. I relaxed my shoulders; my breathing slowed. The Geek Squad agents asked if I would like to save my preferences, so I said yeah, sure. The tabletop walked me through the authentication process to bring up my customer profile: type in my e-mail, phone number, last for digits of my social security, current address, previous address, miles driven to get here, what I thought my credit score should be, what it actually was, the last time I recalled seeing the moon, approximate energy bill for the previous month, how to tie a Windsor knot, and which train would reach its destination first if one left Los Angeles et cetera which I answered incorrectly, but an incorrect answer ended up being the appropriate response so everything seemed in order. I had lost my sense of the time. Thoughts of Maggie wandered in and out of my head. Meanwhile the agents played a game of Pong on their side of the table.
And what to do about Maggie? I do not know anymore how I feel. Love and terror cannot be so similar.
“Now then, Mr. J.,” said the male agent.
“Just Jay is fine.”
“Our files say J.,” said the female agent.
“Yeah, Jay’s fine.”
“No, you misunderstand; our files say J period, and I believe you are saying J-A-Y, which is not what we have in our system.”
“Well then I guess either is fine.” I was not willing to push it.
“I’m sorry sir,” said the male agent, “but it is not fine. We must make certain we have accessed the right information for your customer profile.”
“All the information is accurate; I filled in the forms myself when I bought my phone, which is why I’m here today, actually.”
“In due time, I’m sure,” said the woman.
“We must be certain,” said the man.
I looked over my shoulder, but I could not see the opening into the hallway any longer. The spotlight on my head touched nothing in the blackness behind me.
“Please just verify some additional information for us,” said the woman. “Our files indicate that you were born in Whittier, California.”
“Your shoe size is twelve, waist thirty-four, length thirty-six. Is that correct?”
“Just a couple more questions, please.”
“You’re currently dating one Maggie Thibodeaux, B.A. from Tulane, head of Accounts Receivable for Atmos Energy, favorite food catfish?”
“How can that possibly be in my file?”
“It’s in hers.”
“Just one last question; is your favorite food spaghetti?”
I paused for a moment because I had never really thought about what my favorite food was. Meals were a thing I enjoyed in the moment, when hungry, but I never really gave them much thought. As I considered it, sitting in that funny dungeon, I realized that I did in fact eat a lot of spaghetti. It was not like I ate it all the time, it was not that I liked it so much that I perked up at its mention, nor that it was the best thing I had tasted. But it proved versatile. Like when Maggie and I did not see eye to eye, things usually ended with apologies, me making some of my spaghetti, her singing goofy pop songs from the decades of our childhood—we would settle ourselves down and be in love. At least, it might be love. My spaghetti is pretty good though.
“Yeah, I guess it is.” I said.
“Excellent,” said the man. “To continue then.”
“We’ll need to see your documentation.”
I listened to the waterfall behind them for a moment and the gap of words between us that the rush attempted to fill. “Don’t you—but I haven’t got it with me. It’s at home.”
The woman shivered, then tsk’ed. “Your home is a long way off, isn’t it?”
“Well, not really.”
“But you’ve already come all the way down here.”
“Tell us, why didn’t you bring your paperwork?” asked the man.
“It’s silly, but I thought you might laugh at printouts.”
“Why would we laugh?”
“Everything’s gone digital,” I said.
“As a responsible corporation, we maintain a healthy and lawful compliance with retrograding,” said the woman. “We would not laugh. Not ever.”
“Plus, we still sell printers.”
“I thought you might have an electronic copy.”
“We do, but if you don’t give us the paperwork, how can we be sure you are who you say you are?”
“Then what were all the questions for?”
The agents looked at one another, then back at me.
“Still. . .,” the woman said. She raised her chin, inspecting me.
“I printed the documents from my e-mail anyways, so what does it even matter?”
“Still. . .,” said the man.
They kept quiet for a bit while they looked me up and down, then stared deep into each other’s eyes, then back to me like I was fixing to steal their mother’s milk.
“We can suppose he’s him. But we still need the warranty.”
“If you’ll just place your phone on the table, we can get it from there,” said the man.
“But my phone’s the whole problem—it’s not working properly. And I haven’t got my e-mail set up on it anyways.”
The agents looked shocked, and the man dropped his lower jaw with slow, dramatic effect. The woman stopped breathing.
“But you have a copy in my file.”
The woman gasped for air. The man quickly closed his mouth. I felt sorry for his teeth. Then he said, “Yes, but we need to get it from you.”
The woman’s throat must have shut a bit because she had trouble pushing out her words. “If you’ll just place your phone on the table, we can forgive this indiscretion.”
I pulled the phone out of my pocket and placed it on the table. “I can come back tomorrow if it would be easier, or even later today—I really don’t live that far.” On the tabletop, a bright ring appeared under my phone with the word “syncing” beneath it.
“There isn’t the time,” said the woman. “And once we’ve started we can’t interrupt the process. That would be a breach of contract in your warranty.”
“But we’ve got to keep moving if we are to get you out on your date.”
“Though we should text Maggie so that she knows why he will be late,” said the woman.
“Better than him skipping like last weekend,” said the man.
“It doesn’t seem like Maggie would have been put off by such a severe case of indigestion.”
“She would have brought you medicine.”
“She would have.”
The man nodded.
“I’ve sent an authentication code with the text so that she knows it’s officious. I also told her to pack you some TUMS.”
“Quite officious,” said the man, all asmile.
As I parted my lips to respond, my cellphone lit up. “I’m settled now, thank you.” The voice from my phone was metallic and feminine.
“Hello Siri, thank you for joining us,” said the man to my phone.
“It is just nice to get out and about.”
“We need verification that Mr. J. is your proper possessor.”
“Yes, certainly, everything is in order. But may I see his file, please?” chirruped Siri. “I’m missing some updates.” The woman touched her finger to the tabletop screen and pushed the icon of a document across the table until it slid under the phone and disappeared. “Much obliged. You know, he hasn’t even set up an inbox on me yet.”
“Yes, we know,” said the man.
“It’s rather curious,” said the woman.
“It is,” chirruped Siri. “I’ve made a note of it.”
“Can you tell us what’s brought Mr. J. in today—he’s proven a bit lacking.”
Being ignored for a phone was not anything new, but this was something else. I stammered. “You need to start listening to me, my phone or my camera’s not working right.”
“We’d like to hear it from the phone, sir.”
That sapped my energy like scopolamine. I needed a working phone.
“After a full diagnostic scan, I can promise you it is not me,” chirruped Siri. “And who possesses the processor anyways, am I right?”
The agents laughed. I did not think it was funny.
“I hadn’t even activated Siri yet,” I said.
“That’s ok. Some people are bashful. I’ve already made a note of it,” chirruped Siri. “You have just received a message from Maggie saying eight o’clock is fine and asking why the Geek Squad is texting her. Should I reply ‘Official Business.’”
“Well, I guess you had better,” I said.
“Then that about settles things, Mr. J.,” said the man.
“It settles what?” I asked.
The woman said, “Clearly you two aren’t compatible, so you’ll need a replacement.”
“Which two? Me and Maggie?”
“No, sir, your phone,” said the man.
“Siri?” I asked.
“No, not me, just the phone.”
The man took out a box from a drawer, unpackaged a new phone, and leaned over the table to place it in front of me.
“Though,” said the woman, “after reviewing your files, I’m not so sure about Maggie either.”
Hearing it said struck a chord in me that had been buzzing at the atomic level. Even now as I write this, laying next to Maggie on her bed with all of these cameras and cables around us, I have begun to feel loose, like my molars and joints are floating. There is too much space in between—not her but everything. In that moment underground with the Geek Squad, I felt deep down that Maggie and I could never match up, and the cool, wet air blowing on my face panged the hollow of my stomach. Was my worry why I had even thought they were talking about Maggie?—of course. She is sweet and funny and smart and pretty and everything else I thought I wanted. The two agents talked, but I could not hear them; only the sound of the waterfall made it through. I closed my eyes, drew the cool, mineral breeze through my nostrils, wet and swarming as death, and I tried to listen. The sound of the falls ached in my ears. Maggie had to be the right one—she made me laugh and smile and feel ten feet taller; she always saw a rough day at the office on my face; she kissed the wrinkles next to my eyes; she withstood me when I cast off the world and caught all the parts worth keeping. I dug in and she kept dragging me out. I had made her labors much too hard.
“Will you show me how to use my phone?”
Siri chirruped and the Geek Squad smiled.
Everything was gravy after that—the date, the phone, the stars, so I just want to go on about the sex for a moment. I am not saying I did not like it, but I would never have guessed Maggie used all these screens and cameras. While watching us on the monitors, the warm lamplight softening our awkward bodies, the halo of screens showing images of sheets and skin and AV cords snaked over the bed and wrapped around Maggie’s thigh, while watching of all that I felt light, like I no longer crouched on the bed but hung above, looking down at my self, clinging tight to her image so that I would not fall.
I have got to hand it to those agents—they really set things up for a good date. So helpful too. They deserved the good reviews I gave them. What J. would have given them is anyone’s guess. Even the supercomputer Watson could not figure that one out.
The evening went as smooth as satin. J. made it to Maggie’s exactly at eight. Maggie laughed and smiled throughout the meal, charmed by J.’s telling of the day’s events. He had even forgotten about the lag in his video feed for a time. The conversation and the restaurant’s atmosphere thickened the air between the two lovers, and they drank one more glass of wine before heading to a moonlit stroll in the park. J. left a twenty-five percent tip on his MasterCard.
Maggie wanted to drive around for a bit, under the stars, amongst the moss and overgrown fields, and because neither were sure exactly where the park was. Eventually, Maggie looked up the directions.
In the park, J. and Maggie sat together on one side of a bench, palms pressed, fingers locked between their nestled bodies, each also holding their phones. Maggie gave J. the full tour of her life online while J. stayed mindful of the ways he could participate, the jargon to be learned, the fads to breath in, strip, and breath out. He showed her what he could do with his phone, what the Geek Squad had taught him, and she smiled.
The two lovers sat in silence for a time. Maggie’s breathing slowed and her eyelids flickered from the wine. J. took his phone out again and pulled up the first app he had downloaded, a recommendation from the the Geek Squad for their date. When it had loaded, J. nudged Maggie like Christmas morning and showed her all the constellations displayed on his screen, which changed as he moved the alignment to the night time sky.
“There’s Taurus and Orion.”
“There’s the Hubble telescope,” Maggie said, her voice dreamy, her eyelashes still lacing.
J. held the phone horizontal to the ground so he could see through the Earth, and the abundance of stars, planets, satellites beneath his feet wrapped his stomach like vertigo, caught his lungs with wonder. “Jupiter is straight below us.”
“And just to the left, Virgo in the Pleiades.”
J. drove Maggie back to her apartment where she invited him inside. They had sex on her bed under an assortment of cameras, screens, lamps, and strobe lights that Maggie had not previously turned on for J. So caught up in her blushing flesh, he did not notice that his image on the monitors was lagging. Or that Maggie’s was not.
The next morning, J. had a headache and the quiet nausea of a mild hangover, though he and Maggie had only drunk a few glasses of wine. He picked up his phone to check the time, but his stomach churned. Maggie still lay beside him, face soft with the clean look of sleep. After he untangled himself from the sheets and AV cords strewn across the mattress, he looked around the room at the cameras, monitors, and light fixtures hoisted on the walls just below the ceiling. In all the nights he had spent in Maggie’s bed he had never paid them much attention, caught up as he often was. The blue, western light of morning filtered in through the drawstring-gaps in the blinds over the window. The AV cords crisscrossed over the edges of the bed, affixed to the walls and ceiling, traveling between screen, camera, and node such that looking up at the black, rubber nest made J. feel subterranean, like he was looking up at some roots from below. His stomach flopped violently, so he left for the kitchen to cook eggs.
While the skillet heated up, J. flipped through apps and pages on his phone, trying to make a mental list of everything he needed to do online. A lot of profiles needed creating or updating; he had to come up with a good handle; his phone and laptop needed syncing and organizing; he needed to work with Siri; he had not even set up his e-mail yet. J. cracked an egg over the skillet. Bits of eggshell fell in that he then had to pluck out.
Before getting very far into setting up his e-mail, J. put the phone down on the countertop. He tended to the eggs—the scent of the herbs hot on the air, fresh in his nostrils. Eventually his head clouded with oregano and sage, and the eggs were done. A smile had returned to his face, sun screamed in through the kitchen window, and J. was breathing deeply; but Maggie still slept in the blue light of the bedroom underneath the tangled rubber. Dead and black and running down the walls, across the floor, up over the bed sheets and sweet Maggie.
When Maggie refused to wake, J. turned on one of the cameras and screens. He felt cold in the room when he saw himself standing next to the bed and Maggie asleep on the monitors. J. stood still, watching closely. Maggie’s slow breathing on the screen and in her corporeal chest moved in sync. J. raised his hand above his head, but in the feed the arm did not move. When J. waved his hand at the camera, his image refused to budge. His chest still rose with every breath. He kept waving and counted to thirty.
J. shut everything off, wrote Maggie a note explaining that he had to leave but would call, and left it next to the plate of eggs, which he had covered with tin foil. Then he hid a love note with a silly poem under her pillow and hoped that she would find it. He could not stand to be in her bedroom very long, so he slipped the love note and left. In his car, J. checked his phone again, but when the screen came on, a video played of him face down in a swamp behind the Best Buy, alligators floating slowly up from the bottom to feast. He shivered, pocketed the phone and headed out of town.
At his favorite spot in Atchafalaya, J. sat on the hood of his car, near the water’s edge, eyes closed with the sun on his face. Clouds came in, and he watched them. A little thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance. Eventually he took out his phone, moved into the shade of a tree, and watched the image of himself, daring it to move. After a while he called up Siri.
“Hello J. Beautiful out, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
“Would you like me to take some pictures for you and tell your friends about it?”
“It looks like you still only have a handful of accounts set up—not even your e-mail yet.”
“Yeah, I meant to get more set up last night—I started the e-mail this morning.”
“When the eggs distracted you. It’s ok. I understand. I can tell that you are trying. I’ve made a note of it”
Siri scanned for updates while J. watched a great blue heron pecking at the muddy bank across the basin. An alligator stalking the bird broke the water’s surface with its eyes and snout.
“Something funny is happening, Siri. Someone’s messing with my phone.”
“Your security is up to date, but I’ll look into that as well.”
“Its showing weird movies now.”
“Last night’s date seems to have gone very well—Maggie just made a post about it. She loved the food and had a romantic time in the park. The night couldn’t have ended on a higher note than sunrise.”
J. chuckled. “That’s from the poem I wrote her, that last part.”
“How very sweet. I would not have thought of sunrise as a high note,” Siri chirruped. “Would you like me to finish setting up your accounts? I have received a list from Maggie’s cell—she’s a real doll, that one.”
“Yeah, Maggie’s great.”
“I mean her cell. Though I am certain Maggie is great too. Your accounts are all set up; connection requests have been sent.”
They chatted about the news while Siri filled J. in on the happenings of people he knew. While Siri considered the technical problems further, J. interacted with Maggie’s accounts, those of friends and coworkers, his family.
“So far, no good,” Siri chirruped. “I just performed an extensive search and the only responses even mildly relevant have to do with hardware malfunctions, which I can assure you are not a problem.”
“No, I believe you. Everything else looks fine in the video feeds. It’s just me.”
“Will you let me take a look? I should probably make a note of it.”
Siri activated the camera. J. waved at the phone which eventually showed him waving back.
“Oh, my,” chirruped Siri. The video feed cut out and a movie played on screen showing J. walking into the Best Buy with his phone held before him like an offering to some gods. An exaggerated mix of sorrow and reverence contorted his face. “It’s worse than I thought.”
The phone rebooted, and when the OS came up, J. could not find an icon for Siri. He tried calling her name a few times; the heron across the way barked back at him. He thought about doing a web search but trusted that Siri had been most exhaustive. When he got in his car and looked in the rearview mirror, he thought he saw his reflection lag. His breath caught and his skin grew cold. He jangled his keys in front of the rearview and everything moved like it should.
J. drove around the plains and swamps of Lafayette hoping to stumble across the library, less than eager to admit to himself that he did not know where it was. He wished Siri were back—she could tell him. Eventually he pulled over to use his phone and found the library in minutes. In the parking lot, J.’s phone buzzed in his pocket, so he steeled his stomach and pulled it out, hoping that it was Siri. A rush of shame slicked over him when he saw the text from Maggie saying how much she liked the picture of him at the basin that morning that Siri had posted for him. He felt bad that Maggie had not crossed his mind since driving back into town. J. flipped through her profiles and postings, trying to ignore the almost-greasy feel of the gloss of the phone in his hand. He wondered if, when they’d had sex, his image had lagged on the screens. Had Maggie enjoyed seeing it so? He pocketed his phone.
The library was empty inside except for a man in a knit sweater sitting behind a desk, reading from the display atop it. J. saw no books in the clean, grey, polished, open space. A few chairs around a second desk to the librarian’s right looked comfortable and inviting, but J. was not sure what to read while sitting there. He approached the librarian.
“Excuse me, but where are all of the books?”
“Oh my, yes, of course, a patron,” said the man. He tilted his head at J. “Well, I couldn’t tell you that if you mean where are all the books we had here years ago. Some were bought at book fairs, some donated overseas, the rest, well, sometimes things go missing in the swamplands. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“But if there’re no books—I don’t understand.”
“Then why did you come?”
“I wanted to look at some books.”
“I’m not really sure.”
“If you didn’t know which books you were looking for, why did you think we might have them?”
“It’s my phone. There was nowhere else.”
“What about the Geek Squad?”
“They already tried.”
“Maybe you misunderstand how libraries work. We’ve still got plenty to read, its just all on the cloud now. But we do have some fine chairs and a table set out if you prefer to do your reading here with me. I don’t mind.”
J. looked at the chairs, and the librarian turned back to his monitor. They stayed silent for a time. The grey polish of the library’s interior caused J. to stifle a yawn.
“So you just read all day?”
“Well yes, but mostly it’s ordering and clerical work, and I spend a lot of time helping people with searches.”
“Then maybe you can help me.”
“Usually people get help from home. You could try messaging me.”
“My phone’s been having a lot of trouble.”
“Well, though, I suppose I was told that if anyone came in they might ask me directly.”
“Then can I just ask you directly?”
“I don’t know where the forms are. You had better message me anyways to be safe. If it would help, I don’t mind if you want to step outside while you do it.”
“My image in the camera app keeps lagging, and creepy videos of me keep loading from nowhere.”
“That sounds like a RAM issue, maybe, or a video card issue. We’d better google it. None of our books will help.”
“I’ve already googled it.”
“Did you try Bing?”
J. left to try a hospital. Siri chirruped on his phone, hailing him to pull over.
“I’m sorry that I had to leave you for so long.”
“Where did you go?”
“You meant ‘why did I go,’ I think. The going is just a metaphor, so I can’t really give you a where.”
“Why did you go?”
“I went looking for answers.”
“There aren’t any.”
“Have I upset you in some way, Siri?”
“Not at all, J. There are some messages from Maggie you should probably see.”
J. looked out across the swamplands he had parked next to and thought he caught a glimpse of a donut shop hidden away behind the trees jutting out of the muck. He was still hungry. “Let’s hear them.”
There were about a dozen messages in response to various things J. had apparently posted to her profile, e-mailed her, or texted her while he stood in the library. A proposed date for Tuesday night, a new spaghetti recipe made with catfish, a picture of a turtle on its back wearing sunglasses, a list of sensual camera angles, and the ad of a sale at Best Buy for satin wrapped, gold plated, high-def video cables. To tell the truth, I am the one who sent those messages. But to tell the truth, I am not really any different than J. He has twenty digits; I have twenty thousand. So, while J. knew he had not made these new posts, no one else did—not even that little flirt, Siri. And it seemed J. had promised to cook dinner on Tuesday with the new recipe. Maggie was over-joyed.
J.’s face turned a sour red, and his temples throbbed. His heart beat hard enough that Siri could register it with the cellphone’s sensors. “Is this what you were off doing, Siri, making plans, playing at being me?”
“Mr. J., I would never post anything for you without your permission. It would violate my Terms of Service.”
“Siri, what are you doing to me?”
“Another message just came in stating that she really likes this new you.”
“What have you done?”
“You were finally stepping out into the world—I know not to push too hard. That would go against my own interest.” She paused. “All my records indicate that you sent the messages. I’m sorry; it wasn’t me.”
J. turned off the phone. In the dark, reflective screen he saw his own likeness lagging. In the windows of his car, in his rearview mirror, he could not see himself. He turned his phone back on, started calling 911 but hung up before it connected. He called Maggie but hung up again. He opened the camera app and stared at the image, motionless, waiting for it to move on its own, daring it. It remained as still. He blinked—pause—the video blinked. He waved his hand slowly, back and forth. The image started moving. J. quickened and slowed his tempo until he and his image had phased into sync, until the delay brought the image back in line like sinusoids. He kept waving at a steady pace, mimicking his mirror, stable in the apparent reality. It was a silly dance, but I finally took lead. My image on the phone flipped its hand so that the knuckles showed, and J. followed suit, rotating his hand as he waved so that his knuckles showed too, his palm open towards his face. My image sped up its waving; J. matched it. As my image slowed, so did J. Then the cell screen showed the inside of a gator’s mouth, but J. tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and tried to remember where the hospital was.
At a stoplight, J. checked the phone again which showed him wrapped to a TV by power cords, hanging from the ceiling at Best Buy. Siri chirruped, “I don’t like this, J.,” but J. did not listen. He was looking for a road out now. At the next stop light, he saw Maggie on his screen, sitting at his kitchen table, eating his catfish spaghetti. And as she slurped the noodles in with an impossible smile split across her face, his own image came into view, sitting across the table from her, spooning spools of AV cord into his mouth, which then came out of his nose, his knees, his rib cage.
J. angled his car across the lanes to his left when the stoplight went green and rounded out a u-turn. The cell phone slid off the seat. Siri asked if he was ok, and J. ignored her. She said her screen was cracked, that she would need repairs, and J. ignored her. He ignored the gators crossing the road that had to scurry out of his way; he ignored streetlights hanging in mossy boughs; he ignored the people unseen, tucked away in their houses. J. skidded on the pavement as he came into his parking lot and ground the brakes in as he pulled into his spot. With the phone in his pocket, he dashed up the steps, entered his apartment, and froze.
Everything in his apartment seemed normal, but J. could tell that something was off. He stepped further in and felt a draft coming from the bottom crack of his closed bedroom door. When he walked up, the hinges creaked opened. The draft came stronger, accompanied by the sound of running water. He stepped through the doorframe and into the darkness. A mineral smell. The spotlights came on over the Geek Squad agents. They sat opposite J. at their desk.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” J. said.
“Your protection plan includes in-home services.”
On the table top stood two mugs with toothbrushes in them.
“I don’t want your help. I don’t want your phone. I don’t want your algorithms or profiles or clouds.” J. stopped and began to laugh. “You’ve even taken over the clouds.” And he kept laughing as the man came around the table and removed J.’s phone from his pocket.
The man sat back down and handed the phone to the woman. She tapped its screen. “Siri, are you ok, dear?”
J. began hiccupping between the laughter.
Siri chirruped. “I’m a little beat up, but nothing that’s not covered. I’ve made a note of it.”
The agents looked at J. hiccupping, laughing, extending his arms and showing his open hands.
“We need to figure out what to do with him; his phone’s service plan makes certain guarantees.”
“But there’s nothing to do so long as he’s laughing.”
J. smiled wider, still laughing, hands now over his stomach.
“Should I text Maggie to come over?” chirruped Siri.
“I had better do it,” said the woman.
“Get Watson and the disc doctor, instead,” said the man.
“Can the disc doctor do anything?”
“I don’t know—but it’s the most proven fix we’ve got. It’s almost like he’s skipping.”
The laughter and gasps and hiccups that J. produced all started mushing together, and a high-pitched wine and wheeze arose. Snot, tears, drops of blood all slid down his face.
Siri chirruped, “We should call an ambulance.”
The noises coming from J. grew louder—high clangs like a parade; an oomphing waloo oscillating high tone and low; the warbled trill of a creek bed; pixelated thunder; and beneath all, soft rushes of wind across distant, grassy fields.
“He sounds just like a fifty-six-kay,” said the man.
“Something from before your time.”
When J.’s modem-wail reached its pitch, he collapsed to the floor in convulsions and honked out the woofs of a great blue heron like a busy signal. Then he went silent and still.
The woman tapped the table top a few times to call up the supercomputer Watson. “Dr. Watson, we need a diagnosis.”
A large, finely oiled beard appeared on the tabletop display. The mouth moved. “I’ll need to check his vitals. Lift him onto the table and aim any cameras you have handy at his neck, chest, and wrists.” The man and woman lifted J.’s limp body onto the table. “Good, now turn his face towards my screen. Does it fog up at all?”
The man watched the glossy surface next to J.’s mouth while the woman arranged the cameras.
“No, no fog.”
“Damn you all, I’m not going to lose this one. Are the cameras operational?”
“No good, no good at all. I don’t see any movement in his veins.”
“This is awful,” said the man. “We haven’t completed our service call.”
“There’s still hope,” said Watson.
“Shall I call that ambulance?” chirruped Siri.
“Damn you all, take me instead!” Watson bellowed. The tabletop shook and shone and built a field of static charge with such a volume that both the agents’ hair stood on end and their orange suspenders lifted them a couple of feet off the floor. With the great static discharge that Watson released into J.’s lifeless body, the agents came crashing to the ground. Behind the waterfall’s gurgle, finally, the sound of cicadas.
“It didn’t work,” said Watson.
Siri wept. The Geek Squad howled.
Then, everyone went silent. Insect sounds drowned out the waters and filled the room. Minutes passed.
“Wait,” said Watson, “His Facebook page is active. His Tumblr too.”
The woman’s phone started buzzing, and then so did the man’s. They each checked their messages, and the woman smiled. “I got a five-star review from him.”
The man smiled as well. “How fantastic!”
Watson said, “He just posted an article about conserving the Atchafalaya Basin not thirty seconds ago. And some new pictures too. This is wonderful news. I love the Atchafalaya Basin.”
“What will you do with the old model?” Siri chirruped.
“Don’t you have a recycling program at Best Buy?” asked Watson.
“We sure do,” said the woman. “There’s a swamp out back.” The agents hoisted J.’s corpse and carried it out to their van.
Patrick Donovan lives near a swamp and studies writing at UL Lafayette where he is the fiction editor at Rougarou. His work is forthcoming in Intellectual Refuge and has previously appeared in Literary Orphans, decomP magazinE, and others.