issue twenty-four
art gallery
past issues
current issue
(1200 words)
Ken Poyner
We pull another one out to take to the infirmary. It is the usual ritual: unplug his device from the wall, make sure the battery takes charge, place him in the wheelbarrow, whisk him to the holding area, then plug his device back in. No one wants to trust the battery any longer than is necessary.

I tried to carry extra batteries at first, but then realized there are so many brands, so many makes, and all are not compatible. It usually is not an issue. Long ago these patients went to keeping their devices constantly plugged in, and the batteries are always fully charged. But, every so often, a battery is bad, or went so dead long ago that it could never recover, and when you pull the plug from the wall, the device dramatically goes dark.

Then the otherwise somnambulant patient suddenly bursts into emotion; howling; looking, for the first time, at the assembled recovery staff; pointing in terror at the cold and stunningly quiet device. I have had to transport one of these patients. It is no fun. They can go from agitated to violent with a shimmer in the transport, a bump in the road, with a cough from an attendant. The trip is one of racing behind the wheelbarrow as you aim it with the squirming occupant about to come out from both sides at once. I have heard of patients dumped into the road, grabbing at the hint of a device in a team member's pocket, imagining devices in the street, concocting devices in the shrubbery, in alleyways nearby, in the reflections smiting homes along our weathered path.

Team members are warned to leave their devices at home when an intervention is necessary.

Even these suddenly disconnected sufferers, when finally in the long house we call our infirmary and connected again to village power, calm immediately down, flex their thumbs and forefingers, peer into their devices and begin to click and whir: their boney digits going like the claws of crabs picking over the best of the carrion that has sunk into their depths.

No, for this patient, the battery kicks in, there is not even a momentary flash of recognition, and he is boring through his caverns of e-mail, twisting in and out of his closest thousand friends' delectably shared pictures, reading and forgetting his news feed, sending and consuming vacuous brief thoughts, joining -- all while we are rolling him at the best speed achievable through public streets, citizens and visitors alike stepping aside, the wheelbarrow leaping and loving the ruts and bumps and potholes, his body quivering with each ripple in gravity. He will do alright. He will be delivered.

A stray dog barks at us with no conviction at all. The dog has seen this before. The dog knows he does not matter at this moment; he will pick a better moment to matter tomorrow.

When the devices first appeared in the village, we knew this could happen. Enticing were the brilliant covers; the felicitous ring tones; the finely frail finger driven screens; the warmth of a secure and calming connectivity. Why, the false sense of importance these devices provides can be intoxicating. It can make a man or woman seem, in the context of the electronics, much more than he or she might be able to muster at a neighbor's fence, with laundry behind on the line, or the thatch for roof repair balanced under an arm. And we could imagine -- some of us could, even at the beginning -- that, fueled by insipient narcissism, these devices could lead to unbridled social paralysis.

It is all this data that fails to rise to information; this wealth of exposed circumstances that fail to drive the warmth of understanding.

It is no matter to me. I wait for the call: another victim, thin, seated in the last of his or her provisions, fouled with his or her own waste, found in a home or office or shy corner of a public spot, calciferous thumbs clattering away, eyes unblinking, the tiny screen reflected in the stricken subject's eroding and nearly spent pupils. I am a volunteer. I check to see whether it is my night to drive the wheelbarrow, to put on my protective jacket and heavy shoes, to make sure my device is connected to its charger in the bedroom: and I race puffed and proud into the street.

It is a small town. My mates pull up alongside me. We run to the coordinates we have been given.

I do not know what they do with them in the infirmary. Every time we drop someone off, we see the many we have dropped off before, clicking away, drumming with forefinger page to page, eyes locked into short scanning movements. They are cleaner; they are seated for easier observation. They no longer soil themselves, or the attendants clean them more often. I have faith something will be done for them.

But I also worry that there are fewer of us. At one time there were a half dozen teams; now, there are but four. And some of those four teams are missing members; some have been called out to carry one of their own to the long house that we have imagined an infirmary. There is no sadder moment than to be one member short, and that member to be the patient in the wheelbarrow.

There will be a cure. I can feel it in the weariness of my wrist, the arthritis at the joint where my thumb becomes pleasant with my hand. But many of us have made a pact. If there is no cure, if we lose more team members, combine teams, become one team; if that team then grows too few to haul the diseased to the house of isolation and hope -- then the one that remains will cover himself or herself in mourning clothes, and will skulk to the edge of the village where the power company generators squat, pushing modernity down to us through heavy black lines.

Those lines can be cut, or the fuel pipe exposed and bored, or a rod passed through the generator blades. A brief shudder or a clang or the spitting of metal and the deed would be final. The village would go dark and brooding, waiting, save for the screens fed by the devices' fully charged batteries. But those would go too, in a while. And that one team member left -- himself the entire team, the last villager with his feet on the ground and the winking of air consciously lurking about his lungs -- would wait with both of his or her marvelously guilty hands desperately covering wounded ears as the wailing rises and the deconstruction begins. Perhaps that one faithful team member might remain long enough to see his once fellow villagers lose their electronic sense of invincibility; to see them look down at their own withered arms and legs, and parenthetically stand, and besotted with misdirection attempt to walk; or perhaps even notice. Or maybe this savior will run, run -- fear, in bold text, flowing through him -- thinking now that they are alone, what will my bereft compatriots do?


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Ken Poyner. All rights reserved.