Good Screens

Good Screens

Good Screens 954 1193 Bethany Marcel

Out the window, in the dark, there is the child. “There,” I say. “You see?”

“I see nothing,” says Mira.

She’s always face-in-screen, barely looking. I’m standing, peering out the window. The moon is full and low and silver. Ever since they started displaying the kid I’ve had this sour feeling in my stomach. Acid in the pit of it. I point harder. “There,” I say. “There.”

“I see nothing,” she says.

“Not in the box?”

She shakes her head. Mira is good company, but she’s not easy. I want her around, but I have to watch her for signs of tremor.

“That’s the worst of it,” I say. “The box.” I shut the blinds.

“I’m sure,” she says. She’s chewing gum real big. Like hippo-mouthed. Disrespectful. I tell her that. “But I aint seeing shit,” she says. “Who am I impressing in my own home? Some damn kid?”

And that’s the end of it.

*

Mira’s tremors start early in the morning. Mostly in her extremities. Hands. Feet. Mostly feet.

I’m eating breakfast. Cheerios, like a little kid, but it’s what I like. Mira comes in and sits down at the table. She takes off her sock. “Watch my foot,” she says. She doesn’t make it hard for me to keep an eye on her. She lifts up her bare foot, places it on my lap, and I watch her toes rolling.

“It’s like waves,” I say.

“I’m not doing it on purpose,” she says.

“Never said you were.”

“I mean it would be kinda cool if it wasn’t ruining my life.”

“I bet,” I say. I feel her glaring, but I’m staring down at my Cheerios. Mira gets mad at me for being too casual about her disease, but what more does she want? Ever since the diagnosis I’ve been her caregiver as much as I can. I take her to the doctor. I rub her feet. I bring her food. “Anyway,” I say. “I’m running late.”

I work at a tech company called Ai Fi. There’s no running late. I can roll in whenever I want. Mira doesn’t need to know.

Ai Fi automates social media marketing via A.I. Not my dream job, but it is what it is. It’s a small place located on the east side. Couple of floors; big, glossy windows; beer on tap, mostly IPA; Ping-Pong table; plants everywhere, fresh and green and more alive than we are. Everything you’ve ever wanted is here in the office, especially if you’re face-in-screen, which nowadays most are. Like Aksel, for example, who doesn’t even look up from his screen but somehow recognizes me well enough to say, “Buddy” as I walk in through the door. He’s wearing a company t-shirt, logo of a pig in sunglasses, and he’s holding a frothy IPA. It’s ten in the morning. He’s the only one in the office who drinks this early, but nobody says a word. Silence is the ethos around here.

Aksel works close with my team. He’s the product manager and I’m the lead engineer. Company says we work together to produce results. It’s a bunch of bullshit. Aksel walks around the office and I make sure the shit is made. Nice guy though.

He says a bunch of sentences that add up to yet another case of him needing my team to bail him out. “You know how it is,” he’s saying. “The designers.” He’s waving his hand like the designers are a bunch of horseflies we’re both trying to brush off. “Thanks, bud,” he adds before walking off. Aksel is the horse.

I sit down at my desk and open my laptop. Then I look around to make sure he’s really gone before pulling up Ekrani. It’s the program I’ve been using the past month. See, by the end of the month Aksel will be in for a real big surprise when we haven’t built a damn thing he wanted. Worth it though.  I’ve been trying to locate the kid.

*

Tonight I’m bringing home KFC. I have bad news for Mira, but I’m waiting to tell her. For now it’s a secret I’m holding close to my chest. Eat the chicken first, I’m thinking. Then let her know.

But when I walk in the door, she’s already screaming.

Fuck it fuck it fuck it.” She’s on the floor, writhing. The house is a mess: papers and books and dirty dishes, my empty cereal bowl from breakfast, stained with a film of dried milk. Mira in the middle of it all. I go over to her.

“What?” I say. “What is it? What is it?”

“Feet,” she says, only uttering what is essential. I look at her feet. They’re shaking. Bare and blue and swollen.

“Shoes,” she says. “My shoes.”

She has these special shoes made in Russia that are supposed to prevent the tremors, but she never wears them.

“Where are they?” I say.

“In the closet,” she says. “The closet.”

I go to the bedroom, to her closet, and start digging around. “Where?” I yell. “Where?”

“Behind,” she says.

I look in the very back, and she’s right. I bring them out. I try to shove them on her feet, but her toes are moving like ocean water. “Settle, settle,” I say. I’m trying to imitate the calm I want her to be. Finally her breathing slows and I shove the shoes on her feet. “There,” I say. “That’s all you needed. The shoes.”

She looks at me like I’m stupid, but she says, “Thank you.”

“You gotta get better about wearing them,” I say.

This time she looks at me like I’m stupid and doesn’t say anything. Finally she says, “That KFC ?” She’s pointing to the bag on the ground.

“You bet,” I say.

So I never told her the news.

*

Ekrani isn’t the best program for it. There are other programs, but Ekrani is what I got my hands on a few months back. This guy named Ned sold it to me. It was some back alley whatever. This will even block a happy screen, he’d said when I’d taken it, and then he’d laughed without a sign of guilt or remorse. I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed him, but I didn’t ask any questions. It wasn’t my place to ask. I just needed what he had. So I took it. I brought it home and loaded it up that night. And he was right. It really did block all the happy screens.

*

In the office I bring up the grid. I’m still not able to think about consequences or legalities. At least not now. Ever since the kid things have changed. Ever since the kid, ever since Mira got sick, I’m duty bound. Aksel walks by and I look up. He doesn’t see. He’s going over to Bill’s desk in the corner, talking roadmaps. But I’m doing my own mapping. I’m mapping it out. The kid is here, but also here. The kid is not here. I look at the grid. It’s wrong, but I can’t see why. Not yet. I will though. I have faith in my ability. If not faith, what’s left?

I love solving problems and I’m good at it. So I keep trying, keep staring at the grid. Aksel walks by again. Always walking. Aksel in the office. I feel him looking at me, but it’s fine so long as he can’t see my screen. I slide on my mask of industriousness. See Aksel, I think, I am working. It’s just a kind of work he can’t imagine.
Early on, when we both knew, he said he thought the kids were fine. Even then his stance was a deep sadness to me. The kids are fine, he’d say, and he’d walk around the office saying it. Everything is fine. A lot of them said it though.

The kids would be fine, the kids didn’t understand, were being taken care of, were too young, wouldn’t remember.
It’s easy to get used to things.

But I saw it. They were locking the kids up, they were hiding them away. When they started showing it on the screens, that’s when people got angry. I thought, now they’ll stop. But they didn’t stop. They just stopped showing it the obvious way.

Now the screens are good. And the people are blank.

I log off and close my laptop. I’ve mapped it out as much as I can today.

Mira is home. And she needs me.

*

You could bring home dinner from the food cart like you did the other week? Cheaper. 

I’m looking down at the text from Mira, trying to figure out how much time I have to run a few blocks downtown, stand in line at Teote, then get home to her. I think I can do it, but I look in my wallet to make sure I have the cash. Barely, but I do.

I rush.

And a miracle—I make it.

I walk in the house with a big paper bag, smelling of pork belly and cilantro, a rich and thick scent, and now I’m craving mezcal. My desire for it feels hollow and needy. This time I’m prepared for a scene. But when I open the door its total silence. I pause at the doorway, feeling the pulse of it. Sometimes our house has this feeling like it’s swallowed up the entire world of sound, leaving no trace of rhythm, voice, or music. Like our house is this void we happen to inhabit. Mira is sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, silently painting her toenails this yellow-orange, like marigold, a too-bright color she knows I hate.

“You rub my feet?” she asks. “They’re really hurting me tonight.” That’s when the smell of the nail polish hits me.

She’s not looking up at me. Her foot twitches like it’s answering her own question. When I don’t answer she says,

“Obviously I mean when they dry.”

“Sure,” I say. “But—”

“Don’t say it,” she says.

But I say it anyway. “The kid.”

Lately we’re getting in big arguments about the kid. She says I’m spending too much time with her. I say, who else will? Mira’s on the pinky toe, and now she’s ignoring me.

“Just first,” I say.

She doesn’t say anything else so I set the food on the kitchen counter then pour the mezcal in a water glass. I don’t have to ask to know Mira doesn’t want any. Earth and smoke fill my mouth, a sweet heat, and now I’m relaxed. Or—I’m headed toward a version of relaxing.

Mira is bending forward, blowing on her toes. I go to the window and look out. It’s a blue moonlight, and the kid is bathed in it. If I strain real hard I can almost make out her face. I don’t strain too hard though. I’ve gotta admit I’m happy it’s only at night they put her out.

“You see her tonight?” says Mira. She’s been trying to be more supportive lately. She thinks I don’t notice her efforts, but I do.

“Of course,” I say. “Right there.”

But she doesn’t say anything else. She’s working on a second coat. My stomach is feeling weak again. It’s the smell of nail polish and pork belly. I’m wondering if I’ll manage to eat after all. I’m still pointing at the kid. But Mira doesn’t look. She turns to the good screen. She’s not even trying to see.

*

Here’s what I’m trying to explain. You open a screen and you’ll see all the good you want. You want a happy screen? Happy screen. You want a screen full of the best shit you’ve ever seen in your life? Best shit ever screen. There are no bad screens left. They took all the bad away. And the people are happy.

What I mean is: the people are blank. It’s what I said before.

*

One of our fights happens when I’m close to solving it. One day I’m messing around with Ekrani and it’s clear as a bright, blue day: the kid is nearby. I think so anyway. I can’t locate her exactly, not yet, but I’m seeing it now.

Clear, and on the screen. She’s here, not there. She’s closer than I thought.

Funny, isn’t it? How you don’t consider near at first. How your instinct is to think far when actually the answer is close.

I get home that night and tell Mira. Telling her, I’m real excited, right, like I’m feeling the satisfaction of almost solving it. But then Mira stops me and says a thing I can’t forgive.

“Maybe she likes it out there.”

And that’s when it hits me she doesn’t want her found.

“In a box?” I say. Now I’m furious.

“Well, have you asked her?”

“You can’t ask, Mira. Jesus.”

“Well I don’t know,” she says. She stretches her legs out and admires her toes. She’s so bad about wearing her shoes. “Babies love playing in boxes. Doodling on the walls. My cousin Jenn—”

“Shit, Mira, it’s like you’re not even listening. This whole time you picturing some cardboard box out there? This whole time?”

Mira exhales. “Well, what should I be picturing then? What should I, genius?”

“More like a hologram,” I say. “But not. Forget it. Nevermind.”

She winces. Her toes are starting to roll again. “You lost it,” she says. “I thought it, but now I know it.”

“I’m just saying it’s not a box like you’re thinking. It’s different than a box.”

Mira says, “Then why the hell you been saying box this whole time?”

*

When the first kid went missing, the city took notice. People, even the face-in-screen ones, went so loud for it at first. They went so loud, see, for a day or for a week. But then the next kid went missing, and so on. And then the loud turned to quiet. Gradually, the city forgot. Gradually the city went full on face-in-screen, and then the city forgot. See? But not me. That’s when I looked out the window. That’s when I saw what the others wouldn’t.
My best guess? They decided to start displaying it. It was a choice. No screens this time. Just out there. I don’t know why, it didn’t make sense to me either, but there she was, clear as day, floating in the night sky like some orb. I supposed it was better that way than in secret, right? You’d think so. But the way they did it, see, it was so gradual you had to really be paying attention, so a lot of people missed it. A lot of people, face-in-screen, missed a lot of things then.

If you remove the suffering slowly you don’t even notice the absence. If you replace it again slowly you don’t see.
But not me. I’m attuned. I see every detail. Mira doesn’t. Most people don’t. Most people are face-in-screen, so they’re not looking out. But I’m looking out, I’m looking past, and so I see. I call it a challenge. I say, I accept this challenge.

I can’t blame Mira for not seeing though. I can’t blame her for being face-in-screen. Who could? She’s got her own worries, and I get that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to get her to see. What I’m saying is it’s hard to be alone in this.

*

One night, I get home to Mira. She’s in a good mood and so I say, “Let’s try it again” and this time she agrees, so I pull open the blinds. Outside it’s a half-moon night, and the stars are out, and the child. Always, the child.

“There,” I say. “Look closer.” I’m sitting on the floor beside her. Our bodies are barely touching, but I can feel the heat of her. It feels good, like a way of being I used to know.

“I don’t see,” she says.

“The girl,” I say. “The kid.” I’m pointing at her real hard, like if I try enough I might reach.

“I still don’t see,” she says. And I don’t tell her what is true. I don’t tell her it’s easier not to see. There’s a long pause and then Mira says, “Maybe I see her. Real small? She’s different looking than I thought.”

I can’t be certain if she’s being honest, but I decide to go with it.

“I told you that,” I say.

“I’m just saying it’s not what I expected,” she says.

“I’ve been telling you,” I say. I’m getting frustrated now. Mira never listens.

“Shit,” she says.

“That’s what I’ve been saying. We’re living here, and the kid is—”

“Yeah but still,” says Mira.

“What?”

“My toes,” she says. She’s gesturing to her feet like I don’t know.

“No, I know, I know it,” I say. Then, for some dumb reason, I decide it’s time to tell her. So I say, “We’re losing our benefits.”

Mira pauses. “You’re lying.” She needs the medication.

“I wouldn’t lie about that,” I say. I’m leaning up against honesty, so I don’t feel too bad about it, but then I add,

“You don’t have to worry.” Which isn’t a truth I can promise. And then I do feel bad.

*

How can I begin to explain it? The way the girl is out there in the open, bathed in moonlight, floating like stars, yet pressing her face up against the wall of something invisible? I can’t explain it, at least not properly. The way I’m trying to look beyond her to see where she’s located. Because—and this is what I’d tell Mira if I could— sometimes you have to look past a thing to see it. And I do believe that. I do. But maybe the truth is worse. I’m afraid of that sometimes, you know?

That the truth is I just don’t want to look directly.

*

“Aksel,” I say. It’s the end of the day and I’ve cornered him near the counter where they display the beer, cider, kombucha, and tea. Here at the office we never go thirsty.

“Yeah buddy.” He’s face-in-screen, phone scrolling.

“I’m quitting,” I say.

He looks up, briefly, then down. “No shit.”

“Real shit.”

He says, “I’m not the one to tell you know.”

“Well you let them know for me then,” I say. “You tell them.”

At first I’m not sure he’s really hearing me, but then he says, “Damn bud, I’m sure gonna miss you.” But he’s smiling at a happy screen, so it’s hard to know how much he means it.

I don’t say another word. I don’t need to. I walk over to the counter and pull a glass. I watch the liquid pouring from the tap like a waterfall. Then I take a swig, raise a toast to Aksel, and walk out.

The outside is fog-lit and there’s a coolness in the air. All the trees are red and orange, flossed with papery, delicate leaves. I realize I’ve lost track of the seasons. I’m walking to my car, beer in my hand, and that’s when I stop.

Right there, in the middle of the street, I do what they won’t. I listen and hear. Traffic, strangers, noise. I hear it all. But that’s not all I’m hearing. I look around and see the strangers. I watch them walking, walking, walking, face-in-screen, face-in-screen, face-in-screen. And I get it. It’s not that I don’t. When a sound is so faint and a screen is so pleasant it’s hard to stop and hear. The girl’s crying is like that too. It’s so distant it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist.

*

I get home late and Mira is face-in-screen. She’s smiling and lost. The glow of it is like sunlight on her face and she looks like a Renaissance painting.

“It’s been hurting more today,” says Mira. “And you’re late. You bring the food?” She’s still staring at the screen.
“Your feet,” I say. “I know. And shit, I forgot.” I realize I’m still holding the beer. I try to remember if I drove home with it in my hand.

She puts down the screen and looks toward the window where the blinds are closed. I consider opening them, but I don’t. Not yet. Lately, I’m proud of her. The way she’s been trying to see beyond. To solve a problem, I always tell Mira, you’ve got to notice it first. I set the beer down on the counter.

“It’s the kid,” I say. “Just on my mind I guess. Distracting.”

“Yeah,” she says. “I know. Been meaning to talk to you about that actually. I care and all.” She’s hesitating, and

I’m afraid for what’s coming. “I care about her. Of course. But you’ve gotta admit—ever since the kid you’ve been in such a mood.”

She’s right. Ever since the kid my mood has gone someplace.

Then she says, “It’s in my calves.”

“Huh?”

“Not just my feet,” she says. “It’s my calves.”

“I didn’t realize it was getting higher.”

“It’s been happening.”

“But you can walk?”

Mira looks at me like I’m an idiot. “You haven’t noticed?”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I go to the bedroom, to her dresser drawer, and I pull it out. Enough of the kid, I think. But even I only half believe it. Once you’ve noticed, it’s hard to turn away. Tomorrow I know what I’ll do, where I’ll go, what will come of it all. But not today, not here, when there’s Mira in the middle of the room. Enough, I think. I’ll go back in and I’ll ask her to tell me where it hurts.

I walk back into the living room. The windows are shut and it’s dark and Mira is sitting there, in the middle of the floor, surrounded by papers and dishes and empty bags of takeout. Her screen is on the floor beside her, glowing.

“Here,” I say. I hold up the massage oil.

Mira stares at me. Her eyes. I notice for the first time in a long time that she’s been crying. Maybe it’s seeing me with the oil or maybe it’s something else completely, but Mira smiles in this way I can’t see beyond.
Sometimes you have to look away. Sometimes you have to do the small things.

“Where?” I say.

“There,” she says.

“There?”

“Yes.”

Header photography © Hananah Zaheer.

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