by Cecil Castellucci
What’s your Decade?
Click here to find out what decade you are! Time is timeless!
Start quiz? > YES
You’re not of this Century! You’re an old-fashioned kind of person. You’re quirky and fun. You probably know what the term “dial-up” means. Get thee to a Time Preserve, stat! Kidding! We want you on our pub quiz team!
“Ha!” I laugh as the results come back. “Jewel. The algorithm is way off again.”
I pinch my screen on my forearm and tap to get to the code and see the problem
and tap the Jewel digassistant icon.
Running diagnostic. Everything seems in order.
“No,” I say. “This definitely isn’t me. I know me.”
My job is to assist you. To make you happy.
“I know. I know. And you do. But I’m not an old-timer. Jewel, send a data tag back that the code needs to be adjusted,” I say. I always send a data tag back. I want my world tailored to me. Modern and convenient is how I like it.
May. It’s time for you to start your day.
Jewel nudges me along to start my day with her calming voice. I love that the world is so organized that I don’t have to think about managing my own time. Everything in my house is smart. I can control it from my device, but it’s just so much easier to let Jewel do it all. She knows me better than I know me, except when the algorithms are wrong.
In her pleasing British accent, Jewel rattles off my next steps. The ones that she’s organized for me. I follow her instructions for my morning routine to a T.
I do the usual things I do to get ready. Steam myself. Laser zap all blemishes and stray hairs. Plump and hydrate my skin. Do my makeup so it is airbrushed and contoured to on point perfection. Then I apply the interactive tattoos for flair, metallic light ups - purple is my current color of choice - and link them to my charged-up devices to strobe at will.
You must leave in exactly six minutes to hit all the green lights on your walk to work.
“Thanks, Jewel,” I say. “What time am I meeting my friends later?”
Five forty-five PM on the Southwest corner of 3rd and Broadway. Shall I play some music for you?
“Yes,” I say.
I’ll dial up your favorite channel.
The sounds of an early 21st crooner I don’t know the name of fills the room and I see on my med app that my stress levels go down. Jewel knows how to make a stressful task pleasant.
I pack my weekend bag with disposable, recyclable clothes because who has time to do laundry? Then I pack some external power and cords and a personal hub in my bag, just in case the wireless in the desert is wonky. Which it will be. The desert is a wild place. Uncivilized. So, I know it’s prudent to take care of my tech needs. I’m not going to this concert for any kind of old timer's antiquated analog experience.
I have Jewel ping Trina and Tanya the exact coordinates of where to meet me outside the entrance of New Tech App office where I work in marketing and publicity. I have Jewel schedule a self-driving ride share to the All Stars Under the Stars Music Festival. Because who even drives themselves anywhere anymore? No one but old timers or preservers, that’s who.
“Remind me why we’re going to this?” Trina says as we pull away from the office exactly on time. “It’s so far out of the city.”
Why on Earth go anywhere when everywhere can be brought to you? Just slip on a pair of goggles and the world was yours, with no carbon tax. I’ve been skiing in the alps, diving in Hawaii, on safari in Africa and windsailing in the Amazon all from the comfort of a VRacation booth on 6th and Flower.
“The desert is like a wasteland,” Tanya said. “It’s like so 20th century.”
“Also, everyone that’s playing at this music festival is dead,” Trina says as she scrolls through the talent roster on her wrist app.
“Way dead,” Tanya concurs as she squints into her eyeglass screen. “But at least some of them are cute?”
“I know,” I say clicking over to the socials. “But it’s a 78% chance that we’ll meet a sexmatch there because it’s an 82% certainty that our demographic of partners, male and female and other, finds this kind of nostalgia ironic.”
Everybody that is playing All Stars Under the Stars Music Festival is dead. But thankfully these days, just because you die, it doesn’t mean you can’t still have a career. The show is live hologram performances of everyone you never got to see and probably never heard of on a main stage and a couple of side stages. Everyone who has ever been anyone is playing. I know some of the artists but haven’t heard of others. Some of them were really old. Like, from the twentieth century.
“I’m definitely in need of a sexmatch,” Tanya says sinking back into her seat. “I just don’t like having to go this far to get some.”
“How did you hear about this again?” Trina asks.
“Jewel found it for me. She thought it might be interesting,” I say. “It was on one of the social satellite stations,”
Tanya and Trina sigh.
“All the way to the left, right?” Trina says. “I never go that far down, it’s like going back in time.”
“May is our little time explorer!” Tanya says. She says it endearingly, but it sounds like an insult.
“I prefer the term Classic Connoisseur,” I say. “I mean, I like the style, but wouldn’t want to live like those old timer barbarians. I’m not about to go feral.”
“Barf, can you even imagine? Life must have been so boring then,” Trina said.
“Sometimes I think our Jewels are laughing at us,” Tanya says. “Maybe your Jewel is playing a joke on us?”
“But then again, they do have all the data to match us with our best lives, so…” Trina says.
“Let’s give a listen to some of these acts. I mean, they do play some of them on the higher numbers. I’ve heard of these groups, and this guy…”
Tanya flashes her arm towards us to show an old grainy vid she’s pulled up that has an old musician named Prince (I think I heard he was real royalty?) singing and gyrating in an explicit way. Trina nods in recognition and sings the one line that she knows from the chorus, from an ad campaign for a popular weight loss drink.
They start sampling the other artists that will be performing: Tupac, The Rolling Stones, The Cure, Nirvana, Motorhead, Morrisey, Aretha Franklin, The Carpenters, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, and Elvis to name a few.
“My grandparents used to play this song,” Trina says, singing the next line to an obscure song, enthusiastically.
“Oh yeah,” Tanya says now convinced of the success of our outing. “This won’t be so bad. It’ll be ironic. I already got a bunch of likes for posting about going. So at least it’s social cool.”
“Cool,” we all say in unison. Social currency is a currency that all of us can always use more of.
“It’s like an adventure,” I add. But Tanya and Trina don’t hear me. They’ve already popped their ear buds in and retreated into themselves, zoning out staring at their palm screens.
Shall I untint the window for you? Jewel says
“Sure,” I say.
I don’t sit back. I sit forward. Something deep within me buzzes as I look out the now clear window and see the landscape fade from buildings to suburban houses to flat office parks to wind turbines and solar panel farms to the desert land cracked by the never-ending California drought.
It is true that we are venturing far from the norm and of the what we know, but the difference of the view is exciting to my naked eyes.
While the center of the world keeps changing, one thing that stays the same is that if you want the easy twenty-four life, and to avoid any travel taxes, you stay in the city. The city is where it all happens. That is on the end cycle of every living billboard in Los Angeles, reminding you that it’s best to stay put. But I know it wasn’t always like that. I grew up in a small town, before my parents followed all of their friends to the suburbs and then to the city. You can’t get anything on the twenty-four cycle on the outside. I mean you can. But it’s so much slower. Fast is best. And who wants a slow life?
Well, almost no one.
There are always some people who want life to be different. They want to go to the older ways, be more tactile and physical. That’s not my style. I try not to think about them. They ugly up the world. The look old. They smell. They are lacking in all the things. I can’t market apps to them. I try to forget the unfortunate encounter from this morning on my walk to work where for some reason, Jewel’s map made me hit every red light. I ended up walking almost the whole way alongside an old timer who was carrying a bag of actual groceries. I imagine that he was going to cook something for himself with the ingredients, instead of popping in a pre-made. But worse, since we kept pace for five blocks before I turned to take a new path, he small talked with me. I had to give him directions because he didn’t even have a GPS mod on his body.
Why did Jewel put me in that position?
No matter. I handled it.
Tanya and Trina nod along to whatever song they are each listening to, swiping way at their arms and navigating their devices in a time signature I can’t follow. They are always moving onto the next thing. Shopping. Texting. Posting. And swiping on potential hook ups for the festival.
It is more interesting to watch them listening to a new song then to attend to my own socials. Even though at first, they weren’t all that into it, I can see that they keep doing searches on all the musicians, downloading songs and making play lists and then uploading their playlists and pictures of our travel to all of their social media sites. They get a bunch of hearts and likes, and even though I post nothing, so do I just from being tagged, so now they are warming up to the festival, and think that it was the best idea ever. Like they’d stumbled onto something that wasn’t the same old same old and was a kind of acceptable cool old.
It’s as though they have discovered a brand new world.
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“Oh, look,” Tanya says looking outside the window for the first time during the whole trip. “We’re here.”
“Thank goodness we’re not going to be in that hot mess,” Trina says pointing to the throngs of non-VIP people lining up for security.
“Wow,” I say. “That is a lot of people.”
We can see, as we pass by in the car, that the desert is set up with enormous tents for the stages, but there's also a marketplace, because that’s just good marketing. We don’t have to worry about missing out on the shopping because as soon as we entered the venue, the vendor packets were downloaded to our devices so we can purchase whatever is there and either get droned up to us or shipped to our preferred physical address.
Beyond the barriers, we can see the huge stage with the enormous holographic projectors where the performers would perform. There are signal towers everywhere and Hi Def billboards directing us to apps, pages and info on the what, who and where to tag on the socials. As we get snarled in the bottleneck traffic jam, our tattoos and devices buzzed with ads meant for just us, using an algorithm that combines the data from the pings that our Jewels send out along with the info from our embedded ID tags tailored to our current geographical location.
I get the usual assortment of beauty, girly, clothes products and local brunch spots, lifestyle and party ads. Nothing sticks out as strange. Jewel clearly fixed the algorithm bug I’d had on the quiz that morning (thank goodness) and which must have messed with the green light walk to work. I don’t want to have a fritzy Jewel way out here. I don’t know what Trina and Tanya get blasted to them, but I imagine it’s pretty much the same. Because why would it be that different? We are all basically trying to be the same. We work hard to try to keep ourselves the same.
Up in VIP there is table service and real bathrooms and no sweaty stinking people. I knew that Trina and Tanya wouldn’t have wanted to come with me if we were going to be down on the ground with that crowd, even though it is more in our budget to be down there. I also want all the modern comforts of everywhere. I am not interested in roughing it. Pretty much if I have a choice, I always choose to be in the VIP lounge. After all, why not pay just a little more to have everything be the best?
There are different packages, but I could only afford the group holosuite for us where a small party of 4-6 people can sit and watch the show right up close and intimate in a private room. If you are fancy, you could opt for the solo explorer, where you have your own private pod. Now that’s living!
Whatever package you choose, the advantage of VIP is that you can dial up any performance from any stage and don’t have to walk around. The downside of which means we won’t get our steps in today. Which means we might not get our corporate team bonuses. Which means that our insurance might go up. But Trina lets us know that she has a special way of waving her hands that tricks the devices into thinking she’s done more than she actually has, so we figure if we do that wave, our corporate fitness team points will be fine. We’ll just wave our arms as we watch in our suite.
Inside the VIP central lobby, there is a champagne bar, ice sculptures, mini-bites station and an open area that gives a place for people to mingle and meet up if anyone wants to actually interact. Besides the booths and the pods where people will go to watch the shows, there are telescopes by a bank of large windows for anyone who wants to look down at the venue with actual eyes and see the real 3D concert from this safe distance.
“Let’s go look at those poor people before we go into our holosuite,” Trina says. “It’ll be hysterical to use our actual eyes.”
We all laugh and walk over to the windows to wait our turn to look down at the crowds with their own eyes. It’s just a novelty. Most people are like us and will watch in a pod or a suite. It’s better than then the real thing. It’s enhanced. We laugh as we look down on the little people, and utter relieved sighs that we are here and not there.
“I don’t know how those people down there can stand it,” Trina says as she pulls her eye away from the telescope.
“Some of those are old timers. You know, as a lifestyle,” I say taking my turn on the eyepiece, gazing down at the crowd. “Oldies.”
“It’s almost like I can smell them from here,” Tanya crinkles her nose.
“Some of them just go feral for the fest,” Trina say, reading that fact off of her wrist as she looks up info on the festival. “It’s a thing.”
“I hear when they go feral, they unplug for the day,” Tanya says.
“How can they stand the silence?” Trina asks.
“They pretend they like it,” Tanya says. “But they can’t really like it.”
“I think it’s like doing drugs, only different,” I say. “I hear you get the sweats at first.”
“They double shop when they plug back in,” Tanya says. “They overload.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever known a moment where I wasn’t connected. Not even when there are rolling blackouts in summer because of the energy drains. Even then, connection is a priority. I have generator backups for my generators to make sure I never know. And there is always a Jewel to talk to.
The concert starts and the music bellows behind me, it is an artist, the name David Bowie flashes on all of our arms. He is singing one of his hits that I didn’t know was his and I don’t know the name of, but I recognize the tune.
My heart rate rises.
Shall I save this as a favorite, Jewel asks.
I hit the yes button.
“Show’s starting,” Tanya says. “Let’s get the last of the compchamp before we have to start paying for it.”
She turns away to go grab us the last of the free champagne, but I step back up to the window and point the scope back down toward the crowd. I want to see how different they look now that they are no longer waiting around, and the music has actually started on the mainstage. I am surprised to see that they look miserably happy in the heat and the mud and the dust down there. They are dirty and dancing and when the sky opens in a sudden fabricated sun shower, they look positively ecstatic.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been that ecstatic in my whole life.
“Come on,” Tanya says, pulling me away from the eyepiece and shoving two overflowing flute into my hands.
“Let’s go find our booth,” Trina says.
“What’s that on your eye?” Tanya asks.
I put my palm in front of my face and tap mirror mode. There is a line under my eye. I can’t quite place what it is.
Tanya leans forward and I watch as she pulls the thing away and presents it to me.
“Fake eyelash,” she says. “I thought it was something worse.”
“Can you imagine?” I say, popping on a new lash so I look even as we step away from the window, we weave through the VIP common area looking to find the holosuite we’d been assigned.
“I’ve already matched with seven people in here,” Tanya says. “I’m going to meet one for a bathroom hookup in thirty minutes.”
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I am standing in my holosuite and there is a hologram writhing on the stage in front of me. As erotic as his gyrations with the guitar are, my eye wanders and wonders how much I can look at the other things off the stage. I try to turn around to look at the people watching the show, but of course, they aren’t part of the program.
The room is small and so Tanya and Trina and the three strangers we’re sharing the booth with are cramped together. I wonder how is this any different than being jostled in the crowd? For a hypersecond I think of fresh air, and ambience rather than canned air and heavy headsets.
I turn my attention back to the musician on stage. He is sweating profusely and I wonder if he smells. Or if he smelled back when this show was recorded. I have not smelled anything unpleasant in years. Not even when I go to the bathroom. I take my perfume pill (I always smell like lilacs) every day so that any fluids that come out of me smell wonderful. But down on the festival floor I wager no one smells like flowers. I bet they smell like shit. Have the people who unplugged and gone feral for the day forgone their pills? Was smelling bad like doing some kind of weird drug? Could you get high off it?
Not all of those people down there can be unplugged ferals-for-a-day types. Some of the people at the show must be old timers who live on the time reserves. Or some might just be poor. I wonder if most of the people up here were our age and if the people down there were older? Were they longing for a way the world was that wasn’t anymore? Then again, who knew what age was these days?
“Do you like this music?” Trina asked as she hands me a beer from the tray that the concierge brought in.
“All these stars are dead,” I say. As though that answers her question. But really, I think, is holy shit they had once lived. They lived in a world that is so alien to ours, even though it is the same planet, and I almost get why people might go feral for a day. Is that an option for me? Going feral? The idea of it kind of thrills me. Of course, I’d have to get different friends to go feral for a day. No one could ever know. And I wonder if I’d even like it?
As we sit there in our little booth, watching the dead and arguing about what to dial up next from each of the stages, I stare at the dead musicians faces trying to figure out how I know that they lived harder than me.
Is it their faces that I am growing to like? Weathered. Strange. Snaggled. Snarled. I have never seen a face like that in real life. Even old people in the city don’t look old. They look smooth. Unifying. It’s comforting. Even if there were different shades of skin or hair colors, they all look old in the same standard way.
Then I remember the man with his groceries and how strange and pocked his face was. I remember that looking at the realness of his flaws made me feel like he looked too real. And I did not like that at all.
I step out of the booth to go to the VIP central area saying that I have to meet a hook up. But instead, I remove my VR headset and look around at the people. When I look across the room my eyes sort of skip over the individuals, sort of unfocusing. Everyone has the same arch of an eyebrow. The same cup size for their breasts. The same groomed beard. The same fashion of the week. The same smoothed out faces. The hairless arms. There is an ocean of sameness about everyone’s faces.
But when I step back in the booth and look again at the performers on the holostage, I see that all of them are flawed. Gloriously flawed. Of course, the dead stars that are playing are all programmed from what was considered their most peak beautiful self.
Something stirs in me. Fascinated, I lean in, trying to get a closer look at their faces.
Maybe that’s why when I see it, I let the wrinkle slide.
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I first notice the wrinkle in the hotel room before the New Techs Developers Conference mixer a few months later.
“Huh,” I think. “A wrinkle.”
I’ve never really had one before. I lean into the magnifying mirror and examine it. It’s a jagged little thing. Like a dry riverbed on one of the planets, moons or asteroids all those rovers are exploring. It’s like a little Grand Canyon. Like a mini lightning bolt. I pull the makeup mirror closer to me and zoom in on it for maximum magnification. It is quite something. But as I reach for my vanity bag, I realize that there is nothing to be done as I’d left my de-wrinkler appliance back in Los Angeles. I’d never needed one before and my digisstant Jewel hadn’t put it on the list for me to pack.
“No biggie. I can message Tanya or Trina and borrow one of their de-wrinklers.”
If they have one. Do they need one? I don’t know.
Then I think:
“Well, it’s just a couple of days. What harm can one wrinkle do? It’s not as though my life is going to be over.”
I stop thinking about it and I finish my getting-ready-to-be-in-public routine. I apply my stay firm lipstick with plump and fill. Mist my hair with brown #5 (a perfect match!) And slip myself into the exobodformer size small C (for the girl with curves) and head down to the party where I am to meet Tanya and Trina.
“What’s that May?” Tanya asks me the second I join them after getting myself a cocktail with instant no-hang hydrator at the bar. A double shot because I deserve it.
“What?” I ask as I scan the room to get a lay of the land at this conference and sip my drink, get drunk and then immediately sober.
“On your face,” Tanya says. “There.” She waves her long skinny manicured fingers right at my wrinkle. As she does, I notice she’s had her finger bones done recently to make her hands look younger and I wonder why Jewel hasn’t scheduled me for one of those.
“Oh that,” I say trying to laugh it off, even though I am secretly mortified that other people really can see it. Somehow, I thought it was too small for anyone else but me to see. That I’d wear it like a secret, and it would be my private thing.
Tanya and Trina look at each other. I take another sip of my drink and shake my hair (because that’s what these extensions I just got are for) to show that I have confidence in my actions as the drunk and immediately sober comes flooding over me again.
“Are you going to do something about it?” Tanya asks.
“About what?” pretending not to know why it’s a problem. Or that it is even out of place. Or that no one has wrinkles unless they are very poor or an old timer or live on a time reserve or are a hologram from the past.
“That thing,” Trina says. Now she is pointing straight at my wrinkle. Someone near us leans over to get a view.
“Oh. You mean my wrinkle,” I use some of my corporate training and pretend that the wrinkle is a statement accessory. Like it’s as temporary as a temporary face tattoo.
“Do you need my de-wrinkler appliance?” Tanya whispers like the good friend she is.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I say my hand fluttering to my face. Touching it as though it is an exciting new friend. Feeling as though I can feel the deepness of it on my face. “I thought I’d keep it.”
I shake away any shameful feelings and become emboldened by this sudden defiance of social protocol.
“Keep it?” Tanya says, almost spitting out her drink.
“Oh,” says Trina. I imagine that I can see a million almost emotions run over her face as she processes this information. Of course, the surgeries and the procedures make it difficult to really see the emotions play out on her face as her face doesn’t really move. No one’s does. But her eyes are still expressive, and I imagine that there is definitely a blip as her brow almost crinkles with concern.
I wonder then how old she really is. I mean, I know she’s 28. We’re all 28. But I wondered how long she’s been 28? I have been 28 for about ten years. I think my boss has been 28 for twenty-two years. I wager that Tanya is actually 28. And I admit at the moment I feel a little jealous about that.
A wrinkle is normal for my real age, not my paper age. Years ago, this one wrinkle at my age wouldn’t have been a thing at all. It wouldn’t even be noticeable.
“Cheers!” I say defiantly and take another sip of my no-hang cocktail, although this time I kind of wish that I hadn’t ordered it with the immediate hydrator. I could use the buzz of alcohol for liquid courage now and taken a de-drunker supplement later.
Trina looks at her wrist at a notification and then nods as though it is something very important that needs her immediate attention. I can see that it is nothing but an advertisement notification, but she uses the ping as an excuse to slowly drift away from me. Tanya follows Trina ten minutes after that, and then I am left standing alone, even though the both of them had promised we’d be conference buddies like we always are. Because you know how it is when you’re gorgeous, you don’t want to be alone to attract any rabble. You need to be in a group for protection. And let’s face it, even though everyone is gorgeous these days, our kind of gorgeous was pretty next level spectacular.
I look around the room and for the first time since the desert rock show, I really see how bland all the beauty is.
As I move through the rest of the evening, I lead with my wrinkle. As though this wrinkle, this accident of time and travel, has taken on a life of its own and is the first thing ever that I am really putting forward of myself. Maybe it’s leading me.
I go to the center of the room and start to engage in small talk, but when I do, I notice how everyone I talk with’s eyes drift towards the wrinkle, and then watch as a seemingly confused look spreads across their face. Some are condescendingly kind, over exaggerating that they don’t see it, but then suddenly take their leave. Some are seemingly unable to pay attention to what I am saying and behave as though I am speaking a foreign language because they are so obviously distracted by it.
By the end of the evening, I check my armdevice and realize I have not made a single business connection tonight. And I realize that my friends left me because the wrinkle makes me the rabble of the conference.
For a second, I feel sunk. But then I feel stronger for it. Like I am brushing away all the bullshit. Like I am being real.
Like I am a dead rock star.
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It’s day two of the conference, and I’ve grown attached to my little wrinkle even though it has caused me big social problems. For example, I haven’t had a single match on the con hook up app. I’m eating my meals with the lower rung workers instead of the power networkers as is my usual conference habit. I’ve made almost no business connections. And there seem to be no after parties to attend even though everyone disappears from the lobby bar at a certain time of night and I know it is not to go to bed.
Also, I can’t help but notice that Tanya and Trina have found a new third person to roll around with who isn’t me.
I am being shut out. Doors are closing. I can’t deny it.
All this status change because of a wrinkle?
When Saturday comes, I feel defiant. I tell myself, for thousands of years people have had wrinkles! Thirty years ago, people had wrinkles! My grandparents had wrinkles! What are a few days with one? Can’t a person go a little feral every once in a while? It isn’t even like I’ve gone full feral! I mean, I’m not headed for a Time Preserve. It is such a little thing.
But I can see that it isn’t.
Sure. I could borrow a de-wrinkler. Enough people have offered to lend me theirs. As a kindness, they say. But really, I can see it’s to make them feel more comfortable.
And yes, I could go to the spa in the hotel and gotten a little injection to tide me over. But I don’t. I leave it there. And as I get ready for my poster presentation, which is going to be live streamed, I emphasize the damn thing by using same contouring tricks that I usually use to make myself look flawless but use instead to make the thing stand out. I want to make sure that those at home can see that I am rocking my wrinkle.
“Perfect,” I say as I check myself in the elevator mirror on the way down to the meeting room, looking at my wrinkle in all its jagged glory. “You can’t miss it.”
My little wrinkle is making its debut and I may be the only one but I want it to be seen.
Truth be told, I feel a little radical. A little free.
I do my talk with a gusto I’ve never shown before. I don’t feel as though I have to measure how much my hands emphasize things. I just let them fly. I don’t feel the need to monitor my voice and uptalk to make everyone else feel comfortable. I talk enthusiastically and get loud. I use a cadence that I didn’t even know I had in me and hadn’t heard except for in old time vids. I don’t even use my tattoos to go from screen to screen, I jab at the tablet old school style with my finger! I feel the smoothness of the tablet and it pleases me. I pace the floor instead of staying behind the podium. I am engaged with my body in a way I’ve never been before.
“That felt good,” I think when I’m done.
I really think I nailed it.
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When I get back to the city, my rebellious moment is over and I get the wrinkle taken care of and think, that’s the end of that. My little dabble into counter culture has run its course. It is finished. I’d gone feral for a weekend in my own way and now I am back to being like everyone else.
So, it surprises me when my boss calls me into her office.
“We need to talk about your behavior at the conference,” she says.
“Huh?” I ask. I look at her quizzically. Of course, I can’t furrow my brow, because I’d just gotten injected. But I am certain my eyes say it all. Shock. Surprise. Confusion.
“The thing,” she says waving her tablet pen around the air in a circle around her own face. “The incident.”
“Oh,” I say, feigning that I don’t know what she means although I do. I just want her to say the word. “I’m sorry, what thing?”
“The wrinkle,” she says under her breath as though saying it aloud will make her sprout one.
“Oh!” I laugh as though it were nothing. “It’s gone now, as you can see. I’d forgotten my de-wrinkler. It’s no big deal.”
“But when you are out there, you’re representing us. This company. We are on the cutting edge of look tech. And if you have a wrinkle, well…” she says, her voice dropping again as she says it.
“It looks bad,” I say. “I get it. It won’t happen again.”
“I just wonder, May, if this place is the right fit for you anymore?” she says.
That stops me in my tracks.
“How so?” I ask.
“Well, there are places for people who go feral,” she says. “Maybe you’d be happier there.”
“No,” I say. “I’m happy here.”
“It’s just you let it go for five days. Refused to borrow a de-wrinkler. It’s like you liked having it.”
I pause before I answer. I have to be careful what I say here. I can see that everything is on the line. The truth is I did like having it. It made me feel so different. So, unlike me. So out of the character of modern city gal that I usually have to play.
“It’s like a tattoo or a piercing. Or tech mod,” I say trying to justify it as a body modification. “It was just a little bit of self-expression. It’s no different than being a punk or something like that.”
“But we have punks. Punks are fine. They have tattoos, or metal in their face, or those crazy bio apps. They listen to particular music playlists and they all shop at those chain lifestyle stores. Punk is a thing that everyone can understand. And they all look the same. If this is your punk phase, then go punk. But don’t go aged. You’re not a cheese.”
“Understood,” I say.
She looks at me, sighs heavily and then makes a shooing motion with her hands to send me on my way.
“Go, and just don’t let it happen again.”
“Thank you,” I say and close her office door as I leave.
But right there and then something in me snaps.
SMART HOUSE. A Smart House is smart choice. Self-cleaning. Self-sufficient. Self-aware. A Smart House makes life much easier. Be smart. Everyone wants you to be smart.
Even though I maintain perfect beauty maintenance, the wrinkle causes a flaw in my blemish free work record.
“Jewel, can you find me a lifestyle group to join?”
Of course, I can. I would be delighted. I am here to help you live your best life.
Jewel offers some suggestions, but they aren’t right.
I am not a punk. Or a hipster. Or a foodie. Or a sporty. Or a gamer. Or anything else Jewel throws at me. I feel outside of all of the acceptable niches that are being offered to me.
I might have to get her checked again.
Over the next few weeks while I’m trying to find a perfect lifestyle for myself on my own, I am unsettled. When I sit at meetings, I begin to hate everyone’s face. I begin to hate their voices. I begin to hate them always looking down at their devices when I give a presentation instead of up and at me. I make a point of looking at everyone. I make a point of making eye contact. No one meets my gaze, but people notice that I’m doing it.
HR calls me into their office on more than one occasion and tells me to stop it. They say that my coworkers see it as aggressive and harassing.
Why don’t you take a walk, Jewel suggests. I’ll program in a route for you.
Jewel programs me a long winding route that takes me to streets and neighborhoods I’ve never walked before. I find myself looking in windows instead of looking at the windows on my devices. It clears my head and gives me ideas.
When I get home, I cut my hair short to the length that is not what everyone else is wearing this season. I wear my hem lengths differently than what is in fashion. If everyone on the work group chat says they are wearing pants the next day, I wear a dress. If everyone is going to wear a dress, I wear pants. I add flair in strange places. I remove my tattoos. I become fascinated with fascinators. When my birthday comes around, when asked how old I am, I say “I’m 29.”
Of course, that is a lie, too. But it feels good to mature a year.
And when the wrinkle inevitably comes back. I keep it.
“May your boss would like to have a private meeting with you,” Jewel says.
I know what is coming. She doesn’t fire me, but it is suggested that I leave the company of my own accord and I don’t argue with her.
“What are you going to do?” Trina asks as I pack up my desk. I can see that she really doesn’t care about what I am going to do. She is measuring the room with her smartglasses and scrolling through her armscreen for curtains and accessories. My vacancy has gotten her promoted.
“I’m thinking that I will go freelance. I’ll become a consultant,” I say.
“That sounds great,” she says. But she says it the way that you say a thing when you really mean the opposite.
Quick and Easy App helps you to stay the age you feel. Prepay for automatic renewal of your current age hassle free. We’ll update all of your IDs and paperwork to reflect how old you really are. On the inside.
Though I’ve aged a year, and am now a mature 29, I am still young on paper. I am still young-ish by most standards. More importantly, I am actually old enough to have twenty years of experience in my field. Because of that fact I mistakenly assumed that my clients would follow me, and I would find places where I could consult when I went freelance.
But no clients follow me. No consulting gigs come. And I have no one to cry to about it with because my work friends (who were actually my only friends) don’t get back to me anymore.
“What am I going to do, Jewel?” I wail.
I am here to help you live your best life, May.
With the help of Jewel, I manage to keep up appearances for a few months. But I feel isolated. Not even the apps to find new friends are helpful. I swipe left on all of those losers and realize they all likely swiped left on me. Who wants to be friends with a 29-year-old with no job, no income, unfashionably short hair and some wrinkles?
It’s alarming how quickly everything goes south.
To survive, I have to make some lifestyle adjustments. Jewel comes up with a plan to keep me on budget.
I am here to help you live your best life, May. I want you to be happy.
At first, it’s not so bad. Jewel devises a plan for me to slowly get rid of all the little extravagances. The extra wraps and the small invasive procedures that help to keep things on my body and face in place.
You need to cut more corners, Jewel says. I will help.
Then Jewel suggests that I start to delete the apps that do redundant jobs. Then the ones that help to keep a girl in sync, in tune and in the world. The monthly charges are astronomical and deleting them saves me a substantial amount. But now I’m out of sync. My social life ratings go down. I lose all my followers.
Then I cut down on using the disposable interactive tattoos, which really do make life easier, so that’s a real blow. My productivity suffers.
Another side effect of all my cost cutting changes is that the technology I do keep isn’t automatically upgraded anymore. And because of that it becomes impossible to replace my bioapp when it breaks down inside of my body. Then my metabot stops working which means that my metabolism starts going wonky. Which means that I gain weight. So now my exobodformers don’t fit and I can’t afford new ones. So, I look lumpy and not smooth. Parts of me even jiggle. I can’t buy new clothes to go on interviews for jobs I won’t get because I don’t present a good image anymore. And due to my lack of income, I can’t shop organic pre-paid pre-fixed meals anymore and I have to go to the bulk store like a poor person, and all the food there is processed and preserved and sometimes I have to even cook it.
I am falling behind in the act of being able to keep up.
Worse, my rent is due and I can’t pay that because I cancelled the app that squares things with the building manager, managing my finances and pushing around bill due dates, so the eviction notice comes and my smart building manager is glad because she tells me over a face to face call that she’s afraid that I am bringing down the value of the property by letting myself go the way I have.
Is there anything I can do to help you, May? Jewel asks.
“I’m trying to help myself,” I say, trying to be optimistic. “I just need a lucky break.”
But by now I am officially depressed. I can’t do anything about it because my Pep Nodule prescription is no longer automatically refilled because I am too poor so I just have to deal with my life and where I am without the anti-anxiety meds.
Let’s try to find ways to make you happy, Jewel says. That’s my job.
Jewel sets about coding an algorithm to find me odd jobs that suit my new status.
Finally, I get a gig doing concierge call services to help those oldies or super richies who want a real human to talk to. Jewel finds me a subsidy and I move into a non-smart building, which sucks, but at least it’s better than living nowhere, which is what I was looking at a few weeks ago. I look bad for my real age, but I look good for 60. So, when the new landlord asks me how old I am when I sign the new lease in the new building, I say I am 60. She is excited to have someone who looks so young renting here.
Things have turned around a little bit. I’m scraping by.
I settle into bed that first night, with the city sounds not filtered by a white noise blasting through the non-smart window, in my non-smart room, and think, “what kind of life is this?”
Then I cry myself to sleep.
Feelings? Just say no! Ask your doctor about Pep Nodules. One prick and you’re in the pink!
Nothing makes you feel less a part of the world than if you can’t participate in living in that world. We are told that we are completely connected. But it’s a lie. Everyone is in a bubble. I just didn’t see it until I did and now, I can’t help but see how disconnected a world it really is.
As my devices and the perks associated with my old life fail me one by one, I start to fall further out of step with the world. Even though I talk to people every single day with my job, I have never been lonelier.
Life feels very different when you are invisible and can’t seem to do anything to climb back up to being visible again.
I move through my days like a ghost. I live here in the city where everything is happening and everything is available, but I’m no longer really a part of anything and it’s not accessible to me.
People don’t see me and then when they crash into me as they pass me on the streets or sit next to me on the bus. They are angry that I exist. They mutter things.
Old woman, even though I am younger than some who look younger than me.
Eyesore that should be taken care of and swept away.
Drain on the society.
Everyone I interact with at any help center as I try to get my life back on track tells me that I am at fault for my current social status because I am obviously too lazy for not trying hard enough to keep up with basic social standards. Even though I try to patiently explain to whoever - the bank, the utilities, the grocer, the library, the bus driver - that the whole system makes it impossible for me to do better now no matter how hard I try.
So here I sit in this old school coffee house, typing my order onto the tablet in front of me. While I wait for the tray belt to deliver my food, I look out the window just as a smartbus drives by and I read its brilliant electronic billboard.
Stars Under the Stars Festival.
It hits me hard. It has only been a year.
I wolf down the food quickly, glad for once that I don’t have a working biochip to tell me that I am eating too fast. Then I try paying but I can’t get my device to interact with the tablet because I have an old device and couldn’t upgrade to the new version of the software which means that I have to call over the only employee working so I can pay and they now hate me (like everyone hates me) because they actually have to do something and I feel a bit terrible about it but I am also buzzing with excitement for the first time in months and so I don’t care. I remind myself that I need help and it is their job to help me even though they probably took this job so they could sit around and do nothing but interact with their devices all day.
I can’t take the next bus to the library because I can’t afford to refill my metro card so I have to weave through the people in the streets on their hoverboards, scooters and moving walkways to get to the one public terminal I know will suit my lack-of-being-able-to-connect-with-most-things needs.
Shall I sign you in for a terminal? Jewel asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Please do.”
It is always me and the homeless at the library, but I patiently wait my turn and slip into a digi terminal. It is slow, but it works better than anything I own now.
With all my remaining money, I purchase a ticket to the Stars Under the Stars Festival.
We can put you to sleep for that? Long voyage? Why stay awake? We can put you to sleep so you can wake up at your destination. Upgrade packages include beauty treatments and full fluid swaps to make you feel 100% more like you.
What it will take to get there without the luxury of a self-driving car is a metro hop. A sweaty bus ride. And a long hike.
The festival venue in the desert is only three hours by smart map from the city, it takes me eighteen hours to get there.
Even though I am more present, and in this moment, I still miss things being so damn easy. I see the self-driving cars pass me by and I am jealous of the air conditioning I know they have blasting. Envious of free drinks in the complimentary cooler. Longing for the guilt free snacks.
I walk up to the gate and the automated machine scans my ticket and applies a wrist band. I have to scan in at every check point and every stage of the entrance process because my apps and devices don’t automatically send my info forward. It makes everything slower, but I am here and in the mix.
I finally get through all of the check points and it the festival proper. There are a lot of bodies and it is different than walking along a street in the city. It is difficult to figure out how to navigate through the bodies. I feel a little claustrophobic at first, but once I get used to it, it’s not so bad.
I am using a papermap because I was unable to download the digital map. It takes me a moment to figure out how to read the key and orient my direction, but once I do, it’s pretty easy and I feel as though I’ve really accomplished something.
I head to the marketplace to look at all the things that are being sold. It is a mix of lifestyle mods and organic, natural hand made things that don’t seem to have much use at all unless you are an old timer or are going feral. But as opposed to last year when I scrolled through the wares on my armpad, here in the marketplace, I do like the others and handle the products. I pick up things. I press them against my body. I examine them. There are many things that I like, but I can’t afford anything. But it was still a pleasant and tactile experience.
The crowd still makes me a little nervous, and I realize that I don’t quite know how to view a show with my eyes. At first, I hover in the back of the crowd, but I’m smaller than a lot of people and so I can’t really see very well. After the next act, I move closer, sticking to the sides. Then, emboldened, I make my way to the edge the stage and watch the show. The holograms bounce around, singing their hits. People around me are dancing. Some are singing along. There are all kinds of smells in the air.
But even with the sweat, smells, mud and people around me, it strikes me that the musicians are just lights and shadows and the whole thing is an echo rather than real. I feel hollow. They aren’t really there. They are dead, but I am alive. Just as alive as the people pressed around me.
“You look disappointed,” a man who looks to be mid-thirties says to me as one of the shows ends. He has a big bushy beard and sad brown eyes. He is both soft and hard looking. Strong shoulders, pot belly. Calloused hands, pillowy lips.
“It was so fake,” I say.
When he smiles his eyes have crow’s feet.
“I know a place where there’s a real band, and some home brew.”
“With real instruments?” I ask.
“Not one digital thing. Although, they do plug into amps. They like to get loud.”
“There are a few more bands left today. And I have to hike back to the road to get the bus,” I say, “I only had enough money for a one-day pass.”
“This show is free,” he says.
“Sure, but I have nowhere to stay and I’m from the city, so I have to get back.”
“Sure,” he says. “I get it. But the city will still be there tomorrow.”
I will compile a bus schedule, Jewel says.
I wasn’t really looking forward to the trip back. My feet hurt from standing all day. I want to sit down. Decompress. Have a beer. Get a little drunk.
A group of people pass him by and one of the men slaps him on the shoulder asks if he is coming along.
“I’ll catch up shortly,” he says and then he turns back to me and cocks his head.
“I’m Gavin,” he says extending his hand toward me.
“May,” I say, taking it gently and shaking it.
“Those are my friends,” Gavin says. “Our ride is leaving, so I’m going to go.”
“OK,” I say.
“You sure you don’t want to change your mind?” Gavin asks. “Someone will probably be going back to the city tomorrow. You can hitch a ride with one of them if you want to.”
I really have nothing to lose.
“I guess that might be alright,” I say.
I follow him to a bus. It is yellow and says school on it and I remember seeing pictures of buses like that in a digipicture book I read when I was a kid. I climb on, worried for a moment that I am being kidnapped into a cult or something. They open the windows to let the breeze in.
I look around and everyone is talking casually. A woman sits next to me but turns to her friend across the aisle to talk. No one bothers me, not even Gavin. My gut check says that it was all OK.
I settle into my seat and relax and stare out the window and watch as we drive out of the desert and up the mountain near a lake.
“Here we are,” Gavin says, putting his hand on my shoulder gently as he passes me to exit the bus.
“Where am I?” I wonder as I step into the night. The stars are brilliant up above.
There is a broken-down sign that says Pinewood Camp. There are small cabins all around a larger open picnic area. In the center of the cabins is a little makeshift stage where trio is playing. The music is sloppy and loud, and I can tell they are making mistakes, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Someone hands me a beer. It is real and I feel buzzed and warm. Pretty soon, I’m not standing on the edge of the little crowd, but right up front and center where I keep being pushed forward by the people dancing behind me.
Another band comes on and then another. I have a few more beers.
I see Gavin sitting with his friends. He’s laughing. When he sees me, he waves me over.
“May, this is Marco,” Gavin says. “He’s going back to the city tomorrow and he and his wife can give you a ride.”
“That would be great,” I say.
“No problem at all,” Marco says. “We live downtown.”
“Me too,” I say. I don’t mention which part of downtown.
“Also, I arranged for you to bunk in the woman’s guest cabin tonight,” he says and points out a cabin to me.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Not a problem,” he says. “It’s good to see new faces here.”
“I’ll come find you tomorrow to say goodbye,” I say and then head off.
The cabin is filled with women and they wave me in like I’ve known them forever. Some of them are obviously old timers but some are definitely from the city and are just going feral for a day or two.
I stumble around until I find an empty bottom bunk and throw myself onto it. I sleep the deep sleep of the I’m so relaxed that I don’t give a crap about anything slumber.
I awake early and hungover to the smell of breakfast cooking. I step outside and find myself eating home cooked food, with eggs from the chickens that are kept here and actually liking it. After I’m done eating, I help those who cooked clean up, and then I settle in front of the stage where an old man is playing an acoustic guitar.
Right before lunch, Marco and his wife come find me.
“You ready to go?” Marco asks.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m going to catch a bus or hitch another ride. I want to hear a bit more of the music.”
“Right on,” Marco says. “See you next time.”
“Jewel, can you pull up those bus schedules?” I ask.
I am currently out of range for this area. The schedules I do have are for the venue in the desert.
I try my devices so I can figure out where I actually am and then find a bus schedule back to the city, but nothing seems to work.
“No signal here,” a woman with natty hair eating near me says, “If you want service you have to hike down the hill a bit.”
I plan to hike down the hill, to get out of here because now that I am awake, it is a bit weird and the smells, while charming at first, start to make me feel sick. But as I exit the camp, I find a rock and sit on it and take in the view. My mind unwinds until it is interrupted by a ping.
I have a signal. Would you like me to make a travel itinerary? Jewel asks.
“I guess so,” I say.
I am here to make you happy, Jewel says. Are you happy?
I think about it for a moment as I look out at the valley below.
“Yes,” I say. “I am happy. In this moment I am happy.”
There is a new version of my software available. Not updating means that I will be of little service to you. Updating means that I will be deleted as your hardware is not compatible. Shall I continue?
“Proceed,” I say.
I will proceed. I am here to make you happy.
A last ping and then a quiet that I have not known for years that descends on my mind.
The silence is deafening.
Before I know it, twilight is here.
“You doing all right?” Gavin asks. “I’ve been keeping an eye on you. You didn’t go back with Marco.”
“No,” I say.
“We’ll find you another ride,” he says.
“It’s so quiet here,” I say. “No white noise needed.”
“I know,” he says. “I love it out here.”
“It’s overwhelming,” I say. “My Jewel just died.”
He looks over at me. Then he gets in front of me and squats down and looks up at me scanning my face. Looking at my eyes. He looks genuinely concerned.
“How’s your mind?” he asks.
“Racing,” I say.
“That’s normal,” he says. “It takes a while to get used to not being connected.”
“I should get back soon,” I say. “I live in the city.”
But I wonder why I do. There’s nothing but misery and silence there for me now.
“We’ll get you back if you want to go. Meanwhile, let me get you some food,” he says. He points to one of the cabins that said Gavin’s Grits.
“All right,” I say. The sun is setting, and I know I won’t be leaving that day.
A real-life cook whips up some burgers and fries that smell delicious. I watch as they handled the ingredients with their hands, notice the colors of the fresh vegetables, marvel at how my plate is the same kind of burger and yet it looks slightly different then Gavin’s does. I like that there are differences.
I take a bite, delighted at the pockets of flavor and surprise. It tastes different than I remember a burger tasting.
“This is real,” I say. “Not impossible meat.”
“Yes, we have turkeys,” he says. “Be careful. It’s rich the first time you have one.”
On that makeshift stage three women are setting up to do an evening reading. One of them has a tablet, but two of them have old paper books.
Maybe it is the burger. Or the beer that Gavin slides over to me. Maybe it is the real-life music from last night. Or the reading of the stories that the women are doing. Maybe it is the crisp mountain air. Maybe it’s Jewel leaving me. Or maybe it is all of those things combined or none of them at all, but there is some heaviness in me that is floating away.
“Your wrinkles really come out when you smile,” Gavin says. “What are you? 35?”
When I think about it, in that moment, sitting in a wooden chair, surrounded by the noise of life in a place that probably holds the last silence on Earth, I realize that there has been a slow shift in me this past year and now I am finally arrived. And I know that I am never leaving this place.
I smile again, hoping that my wrinkles deepen.
CECIL CASTELLUCCI is the award winning and NY Times bestselling author of books and graphic novels include SHADE, THE CHANGING GIRL, THE PLAIN JANES, SOUPY LEAVES HOME, BOY PROOF, THE YEAR OF THE BEASTS, FEMALE FURIES and ODD DUCK. She is a two-time MacDowell Fellow. She lives in Los Angeles.