Henry’s cursor hovered over the private message notification, finger drawn by gravity and interest. CLICK the blue button … Accept friend request. And why not? he thought, I’ve been enjoying this guy’s writing, musings, and sometimes humorous quips for months. By his acceptance, Henry felt he was taking a front row center seat. There was no telling what the nearly normal, slightly weird Thomas would come up with next, but Henry wanted notification when he did. Even his website had a copyright date of three years from now. A strange mind lurked there.
TING … A notification: Say hello to your new Facebook friend.
DELETE private message. That’s just a thing Facebook sends—a bit obnoxious, in Henry’s opinion. Accepting the request was hello enough for him. He liked Thomas’s posts, often clicking the thumbs-up, since joining the group for avid readers of science fiction. Other than scrolling down his newsfeeds, he split his time between bird watching for exercise and browsing Amazon for the big novel, anything interesting and readable—time fillers… No, he thought, hobbies.
His next-level important daily tasks were finding ways to avoid spending too much time on social media—that and ducking occasional calls from his ex-wife, telling him what their children were up to and about friends who had passed away. She never used the word “died.” Too final, too harsh sounding for her, he supposed. Henry held to an exact daily regimen. He had to. Being retired, living alone could easily lead to a morass of self-pity and despondency. Lamenting his shrinking circle of friends— the fleshy sort, not the digital ones—concerned him, but not sufficiently enough to act. Lately the routine nagged at him, much as his former spouse had. She told all their friends he had been the nag—too demanding after he’d retired. Midnight, on the dot: Bedtime.
Morning coffee, then other less critical chores faced him. He had long given up on cooking breakfast—too many dirty dishes. A bowl of cereal, any kind, with milk. Rinse the bowl and spoon, place them back where he’d reach for them tomorrow. No sense putting them in the dishwasher. Initial decision of the day: Should he put on street clothes or stay in his pajamas? Peeking out the window, he saw light rain and dreary gray skies, the kind that promised to last all day. Pajamas won, as did laptop on lap after settling into his chair.
There was an unquantifiable sense in opening that thing, ready to power up and launch into vicarious views of where ever he wanted to go. It took him fifteen seconds to scroll through his favorite new media channel’s headlines—same shit, different day. Overnight, nobody had bombed or burned down his hometown. All good in his extended neighborhood. There were plenty who online-worried, or railed about the state of this or that, or wanted the world to think they did, without need for him to read all the gritty, unfiltered opinions. He saved Facebook for last, hoping for things other than images of cats, kids, or deserts—something he could mentally chew on for a bit.
Three private messages, said the red icon—CLICK. The first was an offering of some sort of service. Henry couldn’t quite make out what. The words were splintered, several misused and misspelled. Who in the hell would respond to such things? BLOCK-DELETE. The second was from someone he didn’t know—a name instantly forgotten. The message challenged his reply to some post or other. Too early to enter a flame war. He didn’t even remember what he’d typed in the box. It could have been months ago. BLOCK-DELETE. The last one was from Thomas.
Thanks for accepting my friend request. I appreciate all the likes you’ve given my posts.
Harmless enough. Though Henry had hoped for something witty or wise. DELETE. Scrolling down the newsfeed, he sped past everything political, or religious, all the demands he re-post, or those obviously aimed at people the poster knew in real life. Some of today’s humor brought a smile. Upper right corner … Private message notification: Thomas. CLICK.
Henry, I just wanted to let you know there’s a truck backing up your drive. Don’t be concerned. I sent it.
Henry leaned forward, looking out the window. What looked to be a UPS box truck was slow-rolling, reverse-beeping its way to his house.
Have you sent me something? How did you get my home address?
No, Henry, it’s not delivery. It’s a pickup.
Well, I don’t have anything for pickup. I don’t want that truck on my property. I’m unfriending you immediately.
Too late for that, Henry.
For Henry, it wasn’t sudden, not like closing his eyes and opening them again. It was an experience without description. But here he was, facing Thomas, standing in an antiseptic white room, dark floor. At least, this man looked like the icon Thomas used on Facebook and the headshot on his website.
“Welcome, welcome,” a smiling Thomas intoned. “I hope your trip wasn’t unsettling. We try to make the transition as pleasant as possible. How did we do?”
“How did you do? How did you do?” Henry demanded. “Where am I?”
“You’re at the Institute for Life Study and Education. A prestigious adjunct to our university. We’re very discriminatory. You should take pride in that.”
“Take pride in what?”
“That you were selected, of course.”
“Selected for what?”
“As our newest exhibit.”
“You’re locking me up? Putting me in a cage to be gawked at?”
“A cage? Certainly not. That would be cruel.”
“So, what? Do I just walk around here, being studied by cameras? I don’t like this. Take me home immediately.”
“Take you home? That’s quite impossible in your condition. And there will be no walking around either.”
“What do you mean by my condition?”
“You’ve been prepped for examination and study.”
Henry examined his body, held out his hands, rubbed his head. “I seem to be in the same condition as before I got here.”
“That’s just your brain providing you with kinesthetic input and visual information you’re used to. You have been disassembled, spread out quite far, in fact, though everything is still attached in a planar fashion for easier evaluation.”
“You’ve cut me up? Spread me out? That’s inhuman! That’s vivisection!”
“Yes, Henry. Now you’ve got it. Quite inhuman, or rather, non-human in this case.”
“I’m going to thrash you, Thomas.”
“Go ahead. I’m just an avatar in your mind. Would you like to see your brain?”
Henry started patting himself, jerking about. “It feels like someone’s poking me.”
“Oh, I forgot. This is Children’s Day at the institute. We allow them to touch the exhibits, under supervision, you understand. It’s not often we do this, but they learn well from what you humans call ‘hands-on experience.’ It seems they particularly like the texture of your back-lit skin.”