I fumbled with my cell as I shifted my recently strapless messenger bag into the crook of my arm. Ahead a slim woman in a pinstriped pant suit paused to balance a tray of coffee as she held the door open for me.
“Thank you,” I said, wondering vainly if she got a decent glimpse of my bald spot. Gazing down at my phone, I watched as the words ‘thank’ and ‘you’ populated in the outgoing window of a chat with my grandfather. Somehow I always managed to trigger dictation without realizing it.
“Looking like Monday on a Friday,” the woman returned, smiling.
I thanked her again and we stepped into the lobby of the Portland Maine Prizm Mindscape. Ahead a crescent-shaped reception desk sat unmanned, flanked by two glass elevators that matched the hollow, terraced interior of the 20 floor building. Dozens of people bustled about, most wearing white lab coats. All for flair. This wasn't a place of preventative medicine. It was a place of mental repair.
In other words, it wasn’t break/fix at Mindscape, it was your-app-has-completely-broken-my-mind/try-to-fix.
The woman ahead of me paused to consider the empty reception desk. A moment later her gaze dipped almost helplessly to the tray of coffees she held.
“First time?” I untucked the satchel and held it by the handles, which had been good enough to stay attached as my arm strap decided to snap that morning. Inside was the weight of over 300 pages, inked in my longhand. My latest story that wouldn’t sell.
The woman nodded, lifting her hand to a shoulder-length crop thick black hair. Her gaze fell once more to the coffees as if they were some kind of lifeline. Somehow her entire disposition had shifted upon entering the Mindscape. She certainly wasn’t the first.
“I’m looking for…” she considered the others mulling about the lobby for a moment. “Do you know where Sudden Rejection is?”
No wonder she was so nervous. In a world so tied to Prizm’s Forgetmenot app, those in her situation were by far the worst off, rejected (often unceremoniously) by their lost loved ones in the same way it always went down: they just stopped talking. No reason. No goodbyes. They simply, as the younger generation liked to say, ghosted you.
“Escalator to the right,” I said, trying my best to sprout a genuine smile. “Glass elevator down the first corridor on your right. You’ll want the top floor.”
Her instant relief was like oil coating the gears of a tired machine. It went a long way to distract me from my argument with my grandfather, the distraction that had led to my fumbling outside.
“Thank you so much!” the woman all but gushed. I couldn’t help feeling happy for her. A little human decency went much further than usual these days, especially with the ghosted. Those poor souls always seemed to follow the same pattern of isolation, finding rejection everywhere. Even in art. In a world where life after death was irrefutably confirmed, most of us were left feeling more isolated and alone than ever.
I watched the woman walk away before haptic vibrations drew my attention to a notification on my watch. It was from Bampy. I was so engrossed in reading his message that I grew unaware of my movements and nearly tripped as I reached the top of a glass-walled escalator. Stepping into the upper lobby, I fished my phone from my pocket as I fumbled my messenger bag around. Directly ahead a wall of immaculately polished glass stood between the busy flow of people and the wavering branches of twin Japanese maples now in full bloom with the spring.
The clamor of busy people around me would have been a palpable reprieve from a world so tied to its handheld devices, but I came to this place twice a week and the noise of the place had long lost its novelty. People actually spoke here. In person. Such was the case at all Mindscape campuses, where phone use was discouraged in public spaces and outright banned in private session.
But Mindscape was the exception to digital life, not the rule. We were able to speak with the dead now. Even the holdouts from before, the Boomers as they were called, who avoided learning most new tech because they simply couldn't be bothered to... they were experts in navigating the digital realm and just as buried in their phones when walking the streets.
Despite the looks I received as I began to tap away at my phone screen, I wasn’t able to ignore Bampy. Not that morning. Not after the way things had escalated. As I veered off toward the corridor I'd ventured down every week for the last four years, I couldn’t be bothered to give a fuck about the opinions and looks of others.
Bampy: I just think the ending was abrupt. I love you, kid, but you gotta take your time and let it come organically.
I ducked into a small alcove at the edge of my corridor. Ahead the glass surrendered to vaulted ceilings and immaculate white walls where every ten feet an office door stood adorned with a gold nameplate. It seemed to stretch off into infinity. People funneled in and out beneath a sign that would have been disturbing to most in the days before Forgetmenot: Existential Dilemmas and Disorders.
I cleared the ‘thank you’ my phone had grabbed through dictation and considered the half dozen other texts he’d sent. They covered the spectrum of passive-aggressive critique, though most of his words of advice were not-so-cleverly-veiled jabs. What’s more, the man used words like ‘organically’ now. I couldn’t for the life of me remember him doing much more than grunting at the television while sipping scotch while he was a live. The afterlife had apparently made a scholar out of him.
I banged out a quick response, letting my emotions feed my words even though my therapist’s voice was already speaking up in my mind: ‘We mustn’t act on emotion or impulse when communicating with the dead. They have perspective we still can’t fully grasp. We must trust that they’re motivated always to do the right thing.’
She liked to use words like ‘altruistic’ when referring to the motivations of the dead.
I sent my reply to Bampy and started down the corridor, reading it over a couple times as I checked to make sure my path was clear.
Me: I’m not doing this again. I’ve been driving the plot to this exact ending since the very beginning!
Oh what a mistake it had been to copy-and-paste segments of my book into our chat. All throughout composition I fed it to him ten pages at a time. Before I knew it, my grandfather, who’d been dead now for more than a decade, was editing my book from the Great Beyond. Whatever the hell that looked like.
The cloud icon indicating text was being entered on his end flashed up immediately. They were always so quick to answer on the other side.
Bampy: your grandmother agrees with me.
Yeah, I thought, when I’m not carting her in here every other day. And of course she agrees with you.
Like so many others in her unique position, Gram had adapted to technology with the same feverous zeal as the rest of the world’s widows and widowers. And like the rest in her demographic, she saw Bampy as more of a god than anything else. There were wings here at Mindscape for that as well.
I shoved my phone back in my pocket as the triggered need to respond nearly drove me, distracted, into a father walking along with his toddler daughter. Skidding to a halt, I glanced around me and picked my way through the crowd to the edge of the corridor. There I drew a deep breath and counted to 200, complete with Mississippi’s between each number. My therapist recommended this as a means of removing myself from the feelings inspired by my ‘limited understanding of the will of the dead.’
She also recommended trying to count as many green objects as I could around me. Honestly, it all felt like every tired method once considered a breakthrough in the psychological community was alive and well at the Portland Prizm Mindscape.
I finished counting, but I felt no better. Moving back into the swell of people, I succumbed to my lesser impulses and began banging away additional messages as I passed right by my therapist’s door.
- - -
Doctor Maureen Shakes was hilariously named given her profession. Being mid-to-late thirties, similar to me in age, I didn’t have to ask pointed questions to know that she’d grown up with the same general, healthy distrust for technology. Most of our generation had grown up maintaining a certain detachment from the social media networks that sprung up like weeds in the mid 2000’s and the handheld devices that took over our lives shortly after. We were the last who remembered a time before cell phones and the internet, and it showed in subtle ways when we discussed our experiences with Forgetmenot and technology in general.
It didn’t change the fact that the majority of us had all but submitted to the rule of Forgetmenot. The app was the single most addictive platform ever introduced in the history of the world. Labs had conducted studies comparing it to opioid addiction in the way it rocked human emotion like a boat on an angry ocean. There were now distracted walking laws, most of which came as knee-jerk reactions to people dying in otherwise-avoidable accidents while walking along, glued to their phones.
Forgetmenot owned us all. No one was impervious to its draw, and it was the only app of its kind. Yet its lasting effects on the overall mental health of its subscribers was evident in the glass Mindscape skyscrapers that popped up at a staggering rate in every city, in every country across the world. What’s more, Mindscape services were free of charge to all Forgetmenot subscribers and advertised on the app’s splash screen next to the words “app has been known to cause disturbing reactions” and “Prizm accepts no responsibility for the erosion of spiritual beliefs.”
The manuscript made a satisfying thud as I plopped it down on the coffee table. Beside it on the polished glass were a number of fidget spinners and boxes of tissue.
Maureen’s gaze lifted from the stack of paper as I settled back in the memory foam bean bag chair I always chose. As our eyes met I waited anxiously for praise. Only instead Maureen studied me for a moment, sizing me up before conjuring that rehearsed, deliberately non-threatening smile of hers. Her hair was pulled back tight, as always, feeding a bushy ponytail that flowed over the back of her leather office chair. The legal pad in her lap would have seemed out of place anywhere else in a world that had fought so arduously to free itself of paper and plastics, but I knew why she used it instead of a tablet. Same reason I still wrote in longhand, we held onto that guarded distrust of technology.
“This is the one partially based on your childhood friend, right? The one who…” she trailed off, just as she always did when she specifically wanted me to fill in the details. She knew this story well after years of therapy, but for some cathartic reason that escaped me entirely, she wanted to hear me say it. Every time.
“Owen,” I supplied dryly. “The kid who died in the snow fort collapse.”
If I were capable of that kind of honesty, I would have added: you know, the one I think killed those girls in the summer of ’93, Twisted Oak. Good ole’ Twist n’ Croak… no better place for the true experience of murder and mayhem in Southeastern Maine. But I’ve never told anyone how I’d connected the dots there. Mostly because the decades that now separated me from those days had eroded much of my memory. Now I wasn’t sure about anything really.
“You must feel so…”
I tried not to roll my eyes as she waited, letting her words hang in the air between us as she tapped her pen on the legal pad. Her crossed legs gave the impression that she was nude from the waist down. Oh, how I loved short-skirt-Fridays with Maureen.
I realized all too late that I’d been staring at her legs. With a few tugs at the hem of her skirt she brought my attention full circle. Our eyes met as I rushed out an answer.
“It makes me feel good.” I shrugged, happy that I hadn’t prefaced the answer with ‘I guess…’
“And what does Bampy say now that you’re done?”
She was quicker than usual with that today. Usually Bampy didn’t enter the conversation until the second half of our hour. She was changing things up.
“The usual,” I offered. “Boundless criticism, needless changes to the story… it’s like he just wants to tear me down all the time.”
“The motivations of the dead are still a mystery to us. They probably always will be. We must trust that, regardless of how we interpret their words, they are coming from a place of great love and wisdom, well beyond our limited comprehension.”
She could have been reciting the Forgetmenot legal disclosure presented to every new subscriber, not that I’d ever read it. Moments like these made me hate her, and I’m pretty sure she knew it. Next would come her Forgetmenot prerogative to casually urge me away from therapy, and like clockwork it came with its usual passive-aggressive undertones. I could picture fat cat capitalists in $100,000 suits laughing with cigars and champagne in some faraway high rise as they celebrated the brilliance of Mindscape and its true nature as a tax shelter for the company.
I gazed down at my hands as pain registered in my palms. Unfurling my fingers, I noted the crescent moon shaped dig marks from my fingernails and worked to calm myself as she went through her speech.
“You aren’t obligated to come here, Edward.” She went through this every session. She didn't even segue between topics anymore, just got right to it at my first sign of irritation. The second part was new though: “I’m sensing you’re a little frustrated with me today.”
Our eyes met. For the space of a few seconds there was only silence, then her gaze fell to the legal pad where she went to work scrawling her notes. When I leaned forward to try and read them she leaned away, tilting the pad so I couldn’t see anything.
I wanted to snatch it out of her hands, but what would that solve? Beyond the legal issues I’d probably face, there was also the way Prizm made examples of those who’d violently rejected their philanthropic services. These types were paraded out kicking and screaming, and deposited (often roughly) on the curb. Prizm gave fuck zero; they owned the world and cared little about keeping appearances. Hauling the crazies out in full view of the public was, if you ask me, just another form of dissuasion… as in, ‘we offer these services because our app would literally drive the majority of our clientele crazy without them… and we like money.’
My gaze lifted from the floor and our eyes met. “I’m not thinking about my phone,” I answered defensively.
Her left eyebrow lifted slightly. “You seem distressed.”
I drew a deep breath and exhaled so hard that the edge of my cover sheet lifted on the table between us. Suddenly the sound of the white noise machine at the base of her door was deafening.
“This world is a meat grinder and capitalism has its fat hand on the crank.” I let my gaze fall to the floor, already anticipating her response but not regretting what I’d said. It was the only truth I knew really. When after a few seconds she didn’t answer, I looked up again.
Maureen Shakes was silent a moment, expressionless. Then all at once she tossed the legal pad onto the end table beside her. “I’m prescribing you a mood stabilizer.”
My eyes narrowed at her. I tried my best not to seem agitated. “Since when can you prescribe medication?”
She shrugged with an almost whimsical flair. “A bill is about to hit the President’s desk.”