by Brad Kelechava
I had never minded ads. Quips of desire concealed in consumable taglines are hardly the nuisance everyone makes them out to be.
But this was different. This time, they grasped my heart and squeezed, flooding their petulant arms with broad rivulets of blood. As a Leriop implant user, my mind created the ad. They weaponized my own imagination against me.
The treasure of my morning commute had long been the view of the Manhattan skyline across the river, its jagged collection of ever-shifting obelisks and tower cranes reaching for the clouds.
While walking to my PneumaTube station, I would glimpse the tip of the Empire State Building, and all my troubles with rushing off to work before coming home to prepare for another day bereft of human interaction faded away.
And that’s where it was. A rotating orb stood above the spire, translucent but luminous like old neon. As it rotated, the juxtaposed text revealed itself.
Wearing the words like a sash, it exhibited a simple message: JUST DRINKEE.
That was the first time an ad ever bothered me.
I arrived ten minutes early, but Uncle Mick was already three in the bag. He must have left his apartment hours ago, as his aversion to the speedy PneumaTube system left him solely with the option of the old subways. He waved to me the moment I walked onto the balcony, his toothy smile spilling as much liquid as the tilted glass in his hand.
“Sit down, you son of a bitch,” he said. “Sit down.” He threw back the drink in his hand. The 14th Avenue behemoth skyscrapers standing one block behind him obstructed any natural light. The resulting illumination made Uncle Mick look like he had been slathered in iridescent butter.
“How are you, Uncle Mick?” I asked. My uncle didn’t have a drop of Irish in him. Like my late mother, he was one hundred percent Puerto Rican. The story was that I had a great-great-grandfather with bright blue eyes. People don’t forget a thing like that, and it earned the man who raised me his nickname. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call him Ramon.
“Look at you,” he said, his glazed eyes full of joy. “If only you asked to see me when you didn’t need help. What the hell, get over here.” He captured me in his drunken embrace. “You look good. Job’s still good?” I nodded. “Look at you, man. A corporate dog. Hey, that’s okay. Goes against everything our family stands for, but you ain’t doing no harm. Those places give the workers nothin’ to do, so I bet you have it pretty cushy. Hell, I still don’t even know what you do.”
“I’ve told you a million times, Uncle Mick, I—”
“Yeah, I know, I know. I can’t believe we’ve been talking for so long. I’m dry, and I think you were born dry—excuse me, waiter! Can we get two of these? Rum Drinkees?”
I shivered. Uncle Mick, often oblivious to subtle discomforts, saw it. This was his specialty, after all.
Our waiter dropped off our drinks, and Mick took a heavy slug. He pulled out a pen and small notepad and jotted something down. “Okay, man,” he said. “Don’t think about this too much. All right? Don’t question it, just do it.”
“See our reflection on the wall over there?” I turned and saw a mirror displaying the two of us seated beside the railing. I nodded. “Good. I’m gonna hold up this notebook, and I need you to say exactly what I’ve written. No uhs or buts, okay?”
“Here’s the important part. Don’t read off the notepad. Only read from the reflection. Try not to think about it.”
“How am I going to read it off the mirror if it’s backward?”
He grinned. “Such a smart cookie, you. That’s how you ended up with that job of yours. It ain’t gonna be backwards cuz I wrote it backwards here.” He tapped the paper with his pen.
“Ready?” I nodded, and, before I had a moment to breathe, the face of the notepad appeared in the mirror.
I squinted to focus on the reflected writing and, stifling any perfectly reasonable hesitation, said, “Beta Leriop Protocol 8745ER29 Foxtrot Rivers.”
The booze hit me, hard. The surge in my chest was not unlike the rush I found myself needing to escape whenever a new face sprung a conversation with me. Luckily, that happened rarely. “Uncle Mick,” I said, “I don’t think I’m doing so good.”
“I’m really sorry about that, kid,” he said. “I can’t even imagine how you’re feeling, but you’re gonna be fine.”
“I think I drank too much.”
His grin was slight. “You barely sipped your drink. Your Leriop implant went through a hard reboot.”
“I didn’t know it could do that.”
“It’s not something they advertise. They put in safety measures during development for one reason or another.”
“I can’t believe you know this one.”
“Then you definitely don’t wanna know what I had to do to figure it out. Even talking over the phone about this is risky, but I do appreciate you calling me from a cell phone and not that thing in your head. You should be off their servers for a few hours. Speak freely. What happened?”
I took a sip of my drink. It brought me back, slightly. “It’s nothing too bad. It’s just . . . I see a lot of ads. It’s getting to me bad lately.”
“Fucking Leriop, man. You know that damn thing reads your mind and hands that info off to corporations. They’re making you see shit.”
“I’m fine with that.” And, honestly, I couldn’t see why someone wouldn’t be. Leriop advertisements drew from brain signals to create a picture in your vision, and their algorithm prevented the ads from obstructing a driver’s view or inciting similar hazards. “These ads I’m seeing lately, though, they aren’t what I want to see.”
“I told you not to get that fucking thing in your head.” He lowered his accusatory pointer finger to take another heavy swig of his drink. “The damn thing had been out for a year, and you were clean. But you just had to get an implant. Must be your dad coming out in you, that scumbag. You never listen to your Uncle Mick.”
“Uncle Mick, I know you have connections to certain people—”
“You have those connections too, man,” Uncle Mick said, snapping his fingers at the waiter and guiding those same digits through an extensive maneuver to indicate that he didn’t want another rum Drinkee but a shot from the bottle behind the bar. “I love the shit out of you, kid. Even if you’ve gone corporate.”
“I know, and I’m ready to get this thing removed.”
“That really what you want? Cuz we can take care of that tonight. But things are gonna get crazy. I haven’t seen you in months, and we gotta make up for lost time. As long as you know what you’re signing up for.”
My mind, all on its own, conjured the image of my Leriop implant heating to the point of splinter, followed by the disassembling metal ricocheting lobe to lobe until conflagrating in one final eruption of pain beneath my skull. I killed my drink to drown the thought. “Yeah, Uncle Mick, this is what I want.”
“Okay.” The waiter arrived with two glasses of white rum. “Come back in a second with two shots of tequila,” he said to the waiter. “Drink,” he said to me.
The rum stung my throat. The tequila was harsher.
A guiding wave of booze swept us away from there, and the current kept steady from the Upper West Side down to the crooked joints of Greenwich Village.
Glasses appeared before me filled to the brim, and older people approached me in masses. Most were friendly with Uncle Mick. A few women seemed a little too friendly, as did one of the men. Each gave me the same reaction, although their faces were growing ever fuzzy in my loosening vision. A pinched cheek, a heavy embrace, and some uncomfortably wet kisses to the cheek. Plenty of talk about my mom and my unwavering similarity to her. My eyes did swell slightly at the mention of her, but those maudlin forces quickly wore out and returned me the deepest reservoirs of forced oblivion.
The streetlights melded, and the world wobbled like a seesaw. The avenues shifted from numbers to the letters of the alphabet, so I think Uncle Mick and I ended up in Little Armenia.
The girl in the basement was another hint. Her jet-black hair matched the network of tattoos that lined her arms. Her face was a blur as she pressed something cold and metallic against the top of my head.
I remember Uncle Mick gripping my hand tight, but then he was telling me, “Ya did good, kid, so good,” as we trotted off to the next drinking hole. This one was over at the new complex on Roosevelt Island. Since Mick refused to hop on a PneumaTube, we took the old subway, extending the trip from 5 minutes to half an hour. On the long ride, my head felt warm, but so did the rest of me.
The sun found a new level of brightness through my curtain’s thin opening. I awoke groggy, an echo of the night’s haze keeping me slow. My morning routine—the evacuation of my bowels, a shower, two cups of coffee—helped, but not enough.
Outside, the residual cold of the overnight chill kept my face frosty while the rising sun broiled my back. My head felt like it had swelled three times its size. I scampered down the wide Brooklyn sidewalk.
The Empire State Building stood in the distance, high and mighty in its unobstructed glory.
I took out my cell phone and gave Mick a call.
He picked up on one of the later rings. “Hey,” he said. By connecting with another’s brain, you gleaned certain slices of unsaid information on Leriop calls. Such intricate awareness was absent with a regular phone call, but I was talking to my Uncle Mick here, the guy who raised me from age ten. I knew he was still in bed with a headache clanging symbols in his skull.
That intuition came naturally through my isolated mind and not the supercharge of the implant. “Uncle Mick!” I screamed into the primitive communication device. “I’m looking at the Empire State Building! There’s nothing else there.”
“That’s great, kiddo.”
“No, you don’t understand. My Leriop is dead. I’m having a hard time remembering. Did we remove it?”
“That was all Milena’s handiwork. She’s got her hands on this microwave transmitter, fried your implant up good. It’s still in there, but it won’t be giving you any trouble anymore.”
“Uncle Mick,” I said, forgetting about the hunk of titanium benignly squeezing against my brain. “I gotta get to work. Thanks for everything.”
“Sounds good, kid. Have a great day. Take some time to look at the birds or something. The whole world will feel different now.”
I struggled to separate myself from my bedsheet pasted to my damp skin. The darkness hit me hard as I came to my senses to process the numbers and letters that had appeared in my dream.
My rising disturbance could not counteract the immobilizing force that is fatigue, so the soothing twilight drifted me away. I slept well that night.
The morning came, and the day’s skills in displacing the events of the night did me well. I fell asleep early.
My eyes opened, but the pillowing forces beneath me heralded a return to the warm confines of my bed.
INTERESTS: HIKING; COOKING; GARDENING
My eyes returned to my dark bedroom. The text remained stapled to my vision, continuing to pour out line by line.
And then it vanished.
Reflexively, I turned inward and conducted the motion necessary for my Leriop to activate my apartment’s illumination.
The lights turned on.
I lay there, incredulous and beaten. Much of the information had been inaccurate. I liked cooking—what person who kept to themselves didn’t? But I was no gardener, and I had gone hiking as many times over the past year as I had taken out the girls of my dreams.
My concerns lied with the information that I may have missed. Some highlights included the spontaneous drifts of my apprehensive mind, such as “FRIENDS: 0” and other sensitive information that I had long terrorized myself with persistent thoughts of entering the public eye.
Even with my mind preoccupied, I reclaimed my slumber. I didn’t take a moment to consider that, via the power of my deactivated Leriop, I had switched on the lights.
It’s getting warmer out there, boys and girls, and you know what that means?
Cool off with Drinkee!
After a long day at the office—ERROR—No matter what those corporate scum force on you after a hard day, kick back and enjoy!
Enjoy the cascade of sweetness swirl around your mouth!—ERROR—Savor the joy from the molecules of bliss that erupt against your tongue—ERROR—Graze your craze—ERROR—Disfruta la Drinkee—ERROR—Drinkee day and night!
Feeling empty after enjoying the liquid magic that is Drinkee? Not to fear, keep Drinkee!
Drinkee with your favorite bowl of popcorn!
Drinkee with a home-cooked meal!
Whatever your favorite way to Drinkee, it doesn’t matter!
The space around me shifted into a maelstrom of commercialism. Snippets of code remained in the peripheries of my vision, dragging along no matter where I oriented my gaze. Busty women and men with cleft chins stood in my bedroom clenching bright purple cans of Drinkee.
Forcing free of the surroundings augmented by my mind, I turned inward. I searched through my contacts and selected the one that I was never supposed to call from this device.
The first call went to voicemail. A few more tries followed before Uncle Mick answered. He stammered before finding the silver tongue clarity of the man who had raised me. “Kid?” he asked. “It’s pretty early. Is everything good? I think your system is acting up. It’s telling me you’re calling from—well, something ain’t right.”
“It’s not a mistake,” I said. “I’m calling you on my Leriop.”
“What? You know you’re never supposed to—”
“How am I calling you on my Leriop? I’m seeing things, Uncle Mick. That girl messed me up.”
“Take it easy,” he said. “Get over to my place as soon as you can, and, for chrissake, don’t use your implant for anything, got it?”
I nearly rammed the door off its hinges before Uncle Mick pulled it open.
He let me in, and I collapsed on his couch. I leaped from it when I found it occupied by three bikini models whose desire to rub one another with Drinkee in semi-censored ways didn’t go unrequited.
“What, what is it?” he asked. “This place too filthy for the corporate boy?”
“No, Uncle Mick,” I said. “It’s this goddamn implant. It’s working better than ever before. I’m seeing ads everywhere. I don’t remember what it felt like before. I don’t remember what feels right.”
“It’s all gonna be alright, just take it easy. This all started cuz you didn’t listen to your Uncle Mick. It’s time to stop talking and start listening.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’m having this problem because of you. You say you know everything about the streets, but you’re full of shit. You don’t know these streets half as well as you think. You don’t know anything, do you, Uncle Mick? What exactly do you do all day? You’ve never had a real job. You think it’s impressive that you roll with old criminals, but it’s just sad. Being against the system isn’t virtuous. That system rejected you. You’re a failure, and my whole life you’ve tried to take your anxieties out on me. I’m better than you, Mick.”
Uncle Mick grinded his teeth and opened his mouth to speak, but he closed it again for another bout of enamel destruction. “I was younger than you are now when my older sister left this world. We were prepared for it, but that don’t make it hurt any less. She died and that piece of shit husband of her hers took off, and I was stuck taking care of her ten-year-old. I know I don’t have a model life, but I made it my priority to bring you up right. Made sure you went to school. I never minded that you ended up as one of them filthy corporate slugs. You’re a new generation; things are different. But the one thing I always feared was you becoming that guy who took off. When you were fourteen or so, you started looking just like your dad, and I got terrified. Then I thought about me and all the bad shit I’ve gotten into, and that worried me even more. I was terrified that I was shoving my scum onto you. Those worries were all for nothing. You became your own breed of asshole.”
I sighed. “Uncle Mick . . .”
“If your mother could see—”
“Just give me her goddamn address,” I said. “I need Milena to fix this. Assuming she won’t just screw it up again.”
He walked over to the broken nightstand leaning vicariously beside his bed and wrote on his notepad. He tore the sheet and forced the paper into my hands.
“Here,” he said. “We’re done. I don’t want to ever see you again.”
“Fine by me,” I said, heading out the door. “Bye, Ramon.”
I didn’t turn back to see his look of disgust.
Change brings the wishy-washy aura of something new and interesting. As such, after my second and more-successful visit to Little Armenia, my ad-less consciousness felt good.
I had forfeited much by abandoning my implant, but the negative effects were minimal. I often found myself stuck in front of the TV, my eyes drifting to my phone at the possibility of Uncle Mick giving me a call to smooth things over.
I awoke the following Monday feeling like I hadn’t quite slept. This somnolence persisted, and it paired with an ache in my sternum. It wasn’t pain but more like the agony one feels after a firm strike to a limb infected with the indolent pins-and-needles.
After my morning greeting with the Empire State Building and a few hours of work, the hazy clouds of tiredness began to dissipate, but that aching lingered. Powering through my day and sleeping it off seemed the best option.
But another full night of sleep did little to tend to my discomfort. It just stayed there, that itch, like an eternal echo.
That weekend, I had little to do. As I relaxed in my apartment, that tiny spot sent tremors throughout my entire body. The ache implied a need for activity—to convene with others and explore the world. But those solutions were reserved for those with friends, and I had none.
I stayed up late Sunday night, confident that Uncle Mick was waiting for a drunken night to fuel his regret. If he was out on one of his benders, the booze wasn’t enough to squeeze an apology out of him.
My next day at work was the next day I left my apartment. During lunchtime, I walked to Times Square. The sternum aching persisted. The hot summer sun broiled my skin to a crisp, but its heat would never be enough to dry that one wet spot forever a damp cloth beside my heart.
Times Square seems fake, but it has always been true to itself. There’s a beauty in being a repository for oversized advertisements. At the center, on 43rd and Broadway, a Drinkee ad stood nearly thirty stories high. Even during the day, the ad’s erupting rays of light intermingled with the sun’s photons to carve an impeccable presence.
I couldn’t ignore it. My eyes captured the bottle succulently exhibited in the titan electronic display, and I had a realization. It wasn’t that I needed a cold sugary beverage—even though I was feeling awfully thirsty—but that people around me were staring at this same advertisement, united in their emotions.
I noticed other gazes oriented toward open spaces in the sky.
These people, through the synaptic patterns firing to dictate images in their mind’s eye, were being pulled into a current of commercialism. They may have felt like they were experiencing a shared occurrence, but each saw a vision unique to their own mind and personality.
The result: they felt like they were part of a community.
My aching spot hadn’t gone away. I had just forgotten about it for a while.
I drowned myself in television that night, never skipping a single ad. It helped soothe the ache in my sternum, but the remedy didn’t hold. I simply woke up the next morning knowing that my ache hadn’t slumbered. It would always outpace me.
I give my attention to advertisements quite a bit now, capturing some of the community that those bio-enhanced people slip into with ease.
I wonder if I deserve this. I’m just a guy who wanted to see the Empire State Building. Can anyone blame me for that?
Uncle Mick might. I’m still waiting for his call.
Everyone else is just like me. This ache, this wetness, it’s always prepared to emerge if not kept at bay. The Leriop implant may be a fraud—it might be the greatest joke ever played on humankind. Even so, everyone with one is at peace.
I, however, am alone.
Brad Kelechava is a professional blogger whose writing you might come across while searching for topics spanning renewable energy to the history of rats. His short fiction appears in Tales to Terrify, Theme of Absence, Utopia Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their cat.