Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for April–June 2020: parenthood.
Transmitted herewith are excerpts from statements provided by members of the Barsky family regarding the incident with Hayden Barsky, age 11.
The true origins of KHAOS remain unknown.
I woke up that morning with my Goggles already fixed to my face. I have a rather cave-man sized head, so mine are custom fitted to sit flush with my eye-sockets. They help me sleep—blackout mode plus a sonic cocktail of white noise, babbling brook, and a dash of snoozy piano jams. According to my Goggles, this mix nets me a sleep Projected Optimal Satisfaction Rating (POSat) of 9.2. I’ve swapped out babbling brook for Parisian summer, but that takes my POSat down to an 8.7. I try to stick to the optimal projection numbers and live a nice life.
I consider myself a good guy. My wife still digs 40-year-old me only slightly less than she dug 25-year-old me. I stay in OK shape but work hard at it. Forty-year-old abs don’t just happen. My BMI places me in the 85th percentile for men of my age.
Gwen was already awake. She gets up before me on the weekends. I watched her do yoga class in her Goggles. So focused and intense. She looked great. Plow-posing it up. And after two children. Really impressive.
I considered interrupting her routine to pay a compliment. Something like, “Solid plow pose, sweetie.” But as I moved closer, my Goggles autofilled what they anticipated I’d say. They displayed the predictions across the inside of my lens screen and tracked my eyes to see if I selected any of the options. Sure enough, “Solid plow pose, sweetie” was listed, but came with a 2.3 POSat, a strong DO NOT RECOMMEND.
Deferring to the Goggles, I opted to keep my mouth closed (9.6).
For breakfast, I set my Goggles to filter out unhealthy options, allowing some wiggle-room for weekends. Passion-fruit parfait (8.1). Artisanal oats (7.7). Power-frittata (8.9). Three options, all pretty great. Aside from my occasional autofilled thought, I rarely see options below a 7. When I do see low POSats I think they’re meant to let me know that crappier choices still exist in the world. But for the most part, I’m protected from making them. Anyhow, power frittata for the win.
The kiddos joined. Mabel, our 7-year-old, watched vids on her Goggles while she knocked back a breakfast smoothie. Hayden had his usual egg-white-avocado-croissant. Not sure what was going on behind his Goggles. Probably studying astrophysics or something brainy. He’s into learning.
Yes, I consider myself an excellent father, regardless of what ensuing events might lead you to think. My own childhood was messy. The world was more complicated back then. I don’t blame my parents. They played the hand they were dealt. A world before Goggles. My Goggles follow up weekend breakfast with a centering activity. I opted for a neighborhood meditation walk (8.8).
I passed the Coyles’ house on the way out and gave ’em a wave. Phil Coyle and his daughter Madison were doing a Goggle Krav Maga regimen in their driveway. Madison’s in Hayden’s class. I never saw the point in the martial arts thing, especially since bullying doesn’t exist anymore. Some parents think it teaches discipline. Fine. My older brother was an asshole to me as a kid, so even play violence makes me queasy.
One hour later, I was almost back home from my walk—and then it happened.
Some kid—a stranger kid, couldn’t have been much more than Mabel’s age, ran at me. My Goggles registered his movement but didn’t categorize him as a threat.
The kid backhanded me square in the dick. They used to call this a “nut-tap” when I was young. I don’t know if there’s a name for it anymore.
I collapsed. Surreal. I’ve gone my entire adult life without receiving an injury like this. Goggles protect against all sorts of accidents. But not this. This was no accident. I writhed on the ground. The psychic pain eclipsed the physical.
I checked to see if the Coyles were still outside. But alas, no Madison, no Phil, no witnesses. I stood up.
In the flurry of the attack, my Goggles flung off my face. I located them. Checked the lenses. They really are unbreakable.
I fastened the Goggles back onto my skull, adjusting for a snugger fit. I double-tapped the side to reset the screen.
My right lens flashed red. I’d never seen that. A voice piped in through my earpiece.
Congratulations! You’ve been selected for an exclusive offer. We apologize for the nature of this wake-up call, but then again, this was probably the most exciting thing to happen to you today, so maybe you should be thanking us.
Was this attack some kind of demented marketing campaign?
The screen flashed again. One word. Bold. All-caps. KHAOS. With a “k.” Like some old-timey hardcore punk band.
To learn more about our offer please right-tap your frame.
So, I did. A video played featuring a woman in a white lab coat. Here, I’ll play it for you:
The Woman in the White Lab Coat
What makes you, you?
If we constructed a narrative film of your life, what scenes define your story? Are they happy scenes? Or are those character-defining scenes born of adversity?
Here at KHAOS, we enrich our lives by reflecting upon these moments that define us.
Goggles have been a net-positive for humanity. Over the course of a single generation, we’ve seen improvements across a variety of wellness criteria, thanks in large part to choice architecture systems operating within the Goggle platform. The data supports this. We live longer, healthier, more efficiently. We experience less stress.
New research shows an alarming disparity between the neurochemistry of Goggle-natives and those of us who integrated Goggles into our lives at a later age. Goggle-natives show significantly higher trigger-release thresholds for dopamine, oxytocin, and other neurotransmitters traditionally associated with filial affections.
Now look at your children. They know a life much different than yours. No superstorms. No pandemics. No wars. They haven’t endured what you did, and never will.
Our children were early adopters of this revolutionary tech. And now their lives are curated every waking minute of the day—by programs promoting healthy lifestyle choices and pro-social behaviors—mainlined directly into their audio-visual cortex. But such curation comes at a cost.
To put it bluntly, when your children tell you they love you—they actually mean it less than children of previous generations. When they hug you, they feel less.
Ironically, that’s because you provided your children with an easier life. They experience minimal adverse stimuli. But at KHAOS, we contend such stimuli are essential to one’s identity formation.
Think again about those character-defining moments from the imaginary film of your life.
Were they moments when you opted, as if on auto-pilot, to follow the satisfaction-maximizing dictates of a choice operating system? Didn’t think so.
Now, close your eyes. Breathe. And imagine a world where you, the parent, could introduce some serendipity, spontaneity, and curated adverse stimuli into your child’s environment.
To learn more, tap the left frame of your Goggles.
I was annoyed when Carl first showed me the video. He burst through the bathroom, interrupting shower-hour, and made me watch some sexy scientist tell me our kids have grown soft. And I know half his excitement was because she was totally his type. I’d say like a 95 percent match. Believe me, I know Carl.
It’s not that I didn’t agree with the scientist; it’s that Carl can be an excitable dupe. Goggles usually mitigate his most impulsive instincts, but still, I need Carl to wear them.
When KHAOS penis-punched its way into our lives, I immediately felt like, “screw you guys for putting ideas into Carl’s head and disrupting my peace.”
Goggles changed parenting. We got Hayden a set at 18 months. Goggle training him was a piece of cake. All we did was adjust them to his face and run the program. He was so cute. Goggles make everyone look like they have compound eyes. I started calling Hayden my little bug.
We started Mabel even younger. She was in Goggles by her first birthday.
And talk about results! Hayden was crawling, walking, talking, potty-trained, reading, playing violin. The kid’s fluent in both Mandarin and Spanish. And Mabel’s already mastered three programming languages. Plus, Goggles are always improving and updating. Imagine how brilliant our grandchildren will be.
After Carl showed me the video, I sensed something different—a change in his eyes, through the Goggles. A spunk.
I suppose our marriage lost some heat over the last several years. Nothing specific. Just an overall cooling. The Goggles guided us through cooling periods before. When Hayden started kindergarten, they suggested procreating again—9.1 POSat. So that’s when I got preggos with Mabel. Carl and I first got together because our Goggles matched us at a 9.1. It’s our lucky POSat. Though I sometimes wonder what a 9.2 looks like.
That night, as I was falling asleep, I felt a tug at my thigh. I wasn’t in the mood, so I ignored. Then a tap on my shoulder. I turned to Carl. “What?”
He asked if I ever thought our children were boring. I said of course not. Both of them are ridiculously smart, talented in multiple categories, and well-behaved at school. They are great kids.
His follow up: “But doesn’t that just mean they’re like well-trained dogs?”
I was too tired. I consulted my Goggle menu for answer-alternatives to “Shut up, Carl.” But his question sort of short-circuited the system. My answer options felt stock, weirdly out-of-tune with the moment, and the POSats were all over the map.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Carl, the kids seem perfectly fine” (3.2).
“I hear your concern, Carl, but would prefer to discuss tomorrow” (5.5).
“Yes, Carl, I often think that.” (9.5).
I told Carl we’d discuss tomorrow. But I found myself avoiding him the next day. I didn’t want to talk about this.
Finally, at night, while I brushed my teeth, Carl cornered me. He shared the KHAOS log-in screen on my Goggles, added his fingerprint, and we were in. He’d already set up an account. I scrubbed his screen from my lenses. “What are you doing, Carl?”
He said, “I signed us up.” Yesterday’s spunk morphed into today’s obsession.
I said, “Our kids are perfectly fine without this culty-pop-psych-KHAOS-bullshit.”
That’s when he removed the Goggles from my eyes. Touching another person’s Goggles, even your own partner’s, you just don’t do that. His stare felt piercing. Eyeballs to eyeballs. He said, “I want you to see the kids.”
I said, “Sure, we have the cameras in their rooms, we can watch their feed.”
But once again, Carl stopped me. He didn’t want me to see the kids on the Goggle screen. He wanted me to really see them. With our eyes.
He held my hand and walked me down the hallway toward Mabel’s room.
Mabel sat on her bed, watching a vid on her Goggles. Laughing. Mouthing along to the words. I stood in the doorway while Carl sat next to her. Mabel hardly noticed.
Carl said, “Lights out in 15 minutes.”
Mabel responded, “I know, the system closes automatically.”
Carl said, “Cool.” And Mabel went back to laughing at the vid.
We moved down the hall to Hayden’s room. Cracked the door. I couldn’t even tell you what he was doing. He sat at his desk, Goggles on. His hands tapped away at these ergonomically positioned 3D-egg-screens. From my angle, without my own Goggles, they seemed totally blank, devoid of any information. For all I knew, they could be the tools of an elaborate oil-painting workshop, or the control panel on a spacecraft entering Jupiter’s atmosphere, or the pulsating sex flesh of some coed orgy. I simply did not know. From where I stood it looked like Hayden was feeling up ostrich eggs.
Carl took a step forward, but I stopped him, opting to live in this moment, to watch our son. Swiping. Thumbing. Flicking. Palming.
The creature in front of me. My little bug now just an insect.
Hayden spoke. He must’ve known we were in the doorway. “I’m sending you my math.” He did a few more hand things, then paused. “Did you get it?”
Carl and I stood there, not sure if we were supposed to respond or grab our Goggles from the other room. Carl answered, “We don’t have our Goggles at the moment.”
Hayden turned to us. He flipped his Goggles to his forehead, then stared with what appeared to be mild annoyance, as if engaging with someone wearing Goggles without you yourself wearing Goggles was some faux pas. Because it was.
Carl seemed taken aback, as if caught. He said, “Sure, I’ll check your homework,” and then he left me alone with Hayden.
I moved forward, into Hayden’s domain, feeling naked without my Goggles. I asked what he’d been working on with all the hand-movements.
He said, “Math.” Like it was obvious.
I attempted more small talk, without the scaffolding provided by Goggles.
I said, “Your gerbil’s looking healthy.” I watched the wretched creature run on a mechanical wheel then aggressively tongue at a metal nipple substitute.
“Tater-Tot typically exercises during this hour,” he said.
“Are these what Grandma B got you for your birthday?” I gestured to the egg-screens.
He replied, “Yes, you were there.” I was.
I placed my hand on an egg-screen, like I was relating, but had no sense of what held the egg-screen in place or how stupidly heavy each weighed. My touch knocked it completely off balance. It landed on the bare knuckles of my right foot. I screamed.
“Ouch! Shit! Fuck!”
During this burst, I caught a glimpse of Hayden’s face. His Goggles still on his forehead, eyes gathering sensory input—mother in pain.
But he looked clueless. A lingering disconnect. I wondered if this was anything like Carl felt when that kid attacked him. An assault. What makes us, us.
Hayden sealed his fate with one perfect head nod, allowing the Goggles to flop back into their optimal position. It pissed me off. How fucking nonchalant.
Faux-empathy with a practiced amount of inflection: “Oh no, Mother, your toe. Stay here. I’ll get you some ice.” And then he trotted out of the room, like a good son.
I thought about the POSat for his response. Probably a 9.4, maybe higher. But to me it was a zero-point-fucking-zero.
By the time Hayden returned with an icepack, I’d already hobbled back to my bedroom and locked the door. I found Carl sitting on our bed. Waiting.
I collapsed against the door. Carl could see the gerbil wheel spinning in my brain.
Hayden knocked. “I got you an ice-pack, Mom.”
I didn’t respond. Carl saw I couldn’t.
He answered for me. “Cool, bud. Just leave it by the door. I’ll get it in a sec. And I signed your math homework. Great job! 100 percent.”
“Thanks, Dad. Hope your toe’s OK, Mom. Looked like it hurt.”
I said nothing. After a moment, we heard Hayden go back to his bedroom. I looked at Carl. He looked at me. All I needed to do was nod. He nodded back, a devilish smirk tugging at his lips. There was the man I married. Still in there. I kissed him on the mouth. He was surprised.
Then we made love, right there on the ground. No Goggles.
My dad’s dementia got real bad before he passed. He’d blab for hours about how shitty I was to raise. This eventually became the only thing his shriveling brain could remember from the pre-Goggle period.
I admit, I used to be a difficult kid. I once torched my mom’s beloved sofa. I stole my best friend’s brand-new bike and ditched it in the middle of a train track. I whacked my older sis in the shin with a fireplace stoker. This one time, I ran face-first into a wall at this old movie theater. No reason. Had to get eight stitches. I just couldn’t control whatever random impulse popped into my brain.
Hayden’s un-random. Hayden’s order.
Gwen agreed to give KHAOS a whirl. She said Hayden would have to be our guinea pig. I said cool.
I’ll explain so it makes sense.
KHAOS syncs to any Goggle operating system. With parental permission, it hacks into your kid’s Goggles and takes over all processing functions. But unlike the standard parental controls that come with Goggles, KHAOS can manipulate POSat scores, alter sensory input, and provide misleading data.
Essentially, KHAOS has the ability to lie.
I feel your judgment.
Lame example, but say Hayden wants his go-to avocado-egg-white-croissant for breakfast, but I want him to eat—I don’t know—a jelly donut. I set KHAOS to my desired outcome, in this case, a stomach full of donut, and when it comes time for Hayden to choose his breakfast, the options provided by the Goggles will be stacked to favor my desired outcome over his innate preference. Maybe the croissant will get a 6.2 POSat against a 9.6 for the donut. The final choice is still up to Hayden.
And that’s the most basic of examples. Believe me, things get complicated.
We signed up for the two-week trial, read the agreement, offered our thumbprints for approval. The program guided us through a tutorial. Super user-friendly. It asked us questions about Hayden, our household, our relationship, our overall goals.
Carl and I struggled with the goal section. I think we just wanted to feel a bit closer to our son. Is that so wrong?
KHAOS suggested we start simple.
The first recommended intervention was a basic sleep disruptor. We accepted.
Hayden’s like Carl. Goggle-sleeper. Blackout mode along with ambient pure tones.
KHAOS introduces a specific frequency that floats just beneath most 11-year-olds’ auditory perception. But when introduced at random intervals, it becomes like an intermittent subconscious dog whistle—for kids. They struggle all night to stay asleep, but they can’t figure out why.
We scheduled the disruptor, immediately felt awful, then forgot about it until morning.
Hayden showed up at breakfast. Late. Unheard of. The kid’s usually so together—showered, dressed, quaffed. But sure enough, this morning he looked tired.
Carl asked, “Hey buddy, how’d you sleep?”
Hayden responded, “Fine.” But I knew he was lying. A mother knows.
That’s how things went for a while. Carl and I became a team again, simpatico when it came to choosing interventions. We avoided the more complex ones in favor of immediate gratification.
We set the program to ever-so-slightly manipulate some of the formulas on his math assignment. Hayden got an 87.9 percent on his subsequent math test, just 0.1 percent away from a B+. That got under his skin. He’d never scored lower than a 92.3 percent.
When Hayden came home from school he went straight to his room and closed the door. I popped in and asked if everything was okay.
He turned to me, Goggles on, “I received an 87.9 percent in math. That’s a B.”
My Goggles lit up with response options: “It’s OK. Just let me know what I can do to help you prepare for the next test” (9.4).
“I don’t think your father ever got higher than a C on any math test” (9.1).
The third option, earmarked with a red “K,” the preferred KHAOS choice: [No verbal response. Stare for six seconds. Exit room. Close door] (2.1; K).
Yes, KHAOS hacks my own POSat data to manipulate my Goggle response options toward optimal KHAOS outcomes.
I wanted to give Hayden a break tonight, but Carl couldn’t resist doubling-up. Guided by KHAOS, Carl futzed with the blind-spot corrector on Hayden’s Goggles, which made Hayden take a solid noggin-thumper in the hallway. It was harmless really, just the odd sound of a skull knocking against drywall.
Hayden tore the Goggles off his face in a huff. Carl and I both saw it. Hard not to laugh.
We peppered our two-week trial with all sorts of these fun little traumas. Carl loved the whole KHAOS programing interface. Very intuitive. Basic programming-for-dummies.
Hayden used the wrong shampoo, stubbed his toe on the staircase, overfed his gerbil, left the seat up, forgot his history assignment, lost to an inferior gamer friend, answered in Spanish during his Mandarin class, ran out of egg-whites, mismatched his socks.
No one thing was ever enough to ruin his entire day—but compounded upon each other and spread over two weeks, it was enough to make him feel out of sorts.
But at the end of the two weeks, I wanted a more noticeable change in his personality. After all, that was the whole point of KHAOS. Our kid was resilient. I was disappointed. Despite a few scattered moments of parental amusement, KHAOS felt like a bust.
Carl enjoyed feeling like we were a team again, but I didn’t think the game was worth pursuing beyond our free trial, so I insisted we cancel.
Of course, right as we click the cancel link, they offer you a free “upgrade” to “KHAOS PRO.”
And this upgrade came with a 9.9 POSat! So how could we deny the numbers?
My name is Hayden Barsky. I am 11. This is my statement.
Over the course of the weeks in question, I began to feel my routines unwind. This caused a feeling best described as a vertigo of existence. Things were becoming less predictable.
But when I received notification in my Goggles that Madison Coyle, my classmate and neighbor, considered me of romantic interest, I felt the minor misfortunes of the previous two weeks disappear into the background.
I’ve been enamored with Madison ever since third grade. I occasionally watch her practice Krav Maga in front of her house and fantasize about being her sparring partner. In one recurring fantasy: she throat-punches me too hard, I drop, she feels terrible, lifts me up, and holds an ice-pack to my neck.
She’s in the 98th percentile in terms of height. I’m the statistical median in our class.
Something in her social feed algorithms must have shifted because she began to respond to some of my most recent posts. Three back-to-back. I thought perhaps our interests had been aligned for some time, but our Goggles kept us algorithmically separated until now for the sake of optimizing compatibility outcomes.
The Goggles advised I send her a “wink.” A 9.4 POSat.
I got an immediate response. Double-counter-wink. Apparently, my stock was rising.
The Goggles suggested I develop social plans with Madison, but set them within the context of a larger group outing. I sent an invite to the top of my friends list. Carlos, Steph, Nephi. To my surprise, all parental parties approved. This was happening.
“Going out” these days feels tinged with a nostalgia for a bygone era, an era that pre-dates my existence. But for what it’s worth, malls still pass as an acceptable outing for humans of my demo. Plus, the mall has an arcade. I rank in the 97th percentile for several first-person racers. A demonstration of these skills would increase Madison’s interest in me.
I checked the database for the arcade’s POSat. Only a 4.1. Far lower than anticipated. I demanded clarification as to what outcome the Goggles qualified as a “success.”
Apparently “success” for my situation came in the form of handholding, as in, me holding Madison Coyle’s hand at the mall in front of peers and strangers.
The Goggle-optimized mall itinerary was as follows: Meet at Shopper’s Fountain. Lunch. Game shop. Coffee. VR experience. Big T. Part ways.
Shopper’s Fountain. The mall’s nerve center and optimal meeting place. I arrive early, dressed in classy but adventurous wardrobe selections. Vintage long-sleeve flannel, navy blazer, off-white capris, no socks, pre-distressed Chuck Taylors.
Aside from Shopper’s Fountain, the main attraction in this location is Big Time Screen Time, affectionately shortened to Big T.
Big T is a giant clock with a giant screen, forty-eight feet in diameter, towering above Shopper’s Fountain. One-hundred-twenty-four well-concealed cameras are trained on a picturesque patch of mall courtyard, located directly between the fountain and the base of the clock. Patrons knowingly flock to this patch of courtyard to act out trend-worthy gestures, dances, etc. These actions are captured by the cameras, instantly processed to enhance the look and movement of both subject and gesture—subjects rotate, float, elasticize; gestures melt, sparkle, explode—the list goes on. The augmented video gets displayed in what seems like real time upon the face of Big T.
Big T has become a local right-of-passage for socially active participants of my generation. Friend groups and couples spend copious amounts of energy choreographing dances for mall patrons who make a sport out of watching one Big T vid after another. These spectators “heart,” “like,” or “wink” the vids. Highly rated vids get shared amongst friends, peers, and strangers. Big T vids are social currency.
Madison arrives five minutes and 37 seconds late. She smiles. I smile back.
Food court. Madison eats a salad from Papa Ramone’s Organics. I consume a FiberBallerBowl (extra brussels) from BowlSpace as per the Goggles top recommendation. I facilitate conversation between her peer group and my peer group. Madison and I engage in a fluid side conversation about our siblings, my capris, and her Krav training.
Game Haven. We scour new releases. Play a few demos. Madison and I go head-to-head at Highway-Huntress. She chooses the coupe. I choose the dump-truck. We “accidentally” bump elbows. She laughs. I let her win. She knows. I make a suggestion to Nephi. He purchases Tsunami-Dawn VII: Flood Season. 9.6 POSat. As we exit, Madison tells me she’s having fun. I briefly fantasize we’re holding hands in a Big T vid.
Caffeine Hut. To highlight a sophisticated palette. But also, the effects of caffeine on my intellectually keen 11-year-old brain afford me the social edge needed in case any friends attempt to intercept my affection toward Madison.
Landscape of the Imagination. VR multiplex. Adrenaline to compliment the caffeine. I suggest Canopy-Run: A Rainforest Adventure. Madison’s into nature.
This particular experience is a 9.5. Plus, it’s a specialty experience, compatible for two people at a time, highly physical, not recommended for the elderly or expecting mothers. Yes, me and Madison, in a room together—running through the rainforest, swinging from trees, tasting thrills of a life beyond 5th grade.
I pause here. Because everything about the day unfolded beautifully.
Until this point.
Somewhere between wrestling an anaconda and careening off a waterfall, I notice an unsettling turn in the center mass of my body. From underneath my VR helmet, my Goggles register this turn, but advise me to stay the course.
Because of this setback, I fall behind in the narrative and find myself pursued by a pack of wild hogs. To evade the hogs, I must run in place. So, I run.
Sweat trickles from my hairline, across my lenses.
A bubble of warm pressure pushes against my insides once again. The VR narrative prompts me to jump over a fallen tree trunk. But I do not. I feel the Goggles tighten.
I cannot advance any further in the VR narrative without jumping the tree. Madison’s avatar looks over to me, “Jump, silly.”
And so, I jump. The bubble of warm air escapes my body. Fortunately, the unpleasant sound associated with such release gets masked by the squeal of the hogs closing in. Madison does not hear me.
However, the unseemly fragrance of undigested coffee and brussels sprouts creeps into my VR helmet, effectively trapping me in a gas chamber of my own creation. My Goggles suggest three unsatisfactory options.
[Say nothing, exit immediately] (3.3).
“Pardon me, I need to locate a restroom” (3.3).
“It appears they piped hog stench through the vents” (3.3)
This isn’t good. I choose none, but watch in horror as the odor creeps its way into Madison’s helmet. She turns to face me, helmet tilting. I have no way of reading her facial expression, though I imagine it’s one of disgust.
My Goggles file through alternate responses. But the only sound I muster is another mini-air-explosion from the waistband.
Madison hears this one.
I exit the room. I remove the helmet, attempt to return it, but fumble. It drops. The helmet cracks. A lobby of people notice me—a clumsy, sweaty, putrid, median-sized hog. I see Carlos and Steph in the concession line. They ask if I’m alright.
I bolt out the entrance. The Goggles countdown the steps to the nearest restroom.
Forty-seven steps away. I walk briskly.
Thirty-nine steps. My intestines gurgle. I begin to run.
Twenty-five steps. I never drink coffee. Why start today?
Eighteen steps. I consider pre-emptive unbuttoning.
Ten steps. One more corner.
Five steps …
A flimsy sign: Out of Order. More Restrooms at Food Court
The food court is exactly two hundred nineteen steps northwest.
My Goggles detect my overactive pituitary response.
Goggle Emergency Mode. This has never happened before. Emergency Mode was designed for soldiers in combat situations back when wars were still a thing.
In Emergency Mode, the Goggles shut out distractions. You don’t get options. You don’t get POSats. You get directives. Nonessential parts of your environment blur into a dull gray background. Directives light up.
My directive is simple. The Goggles dictate an optimal pace and light the path towards the nearest functional toilet, balancing an ambitious stride while considering the clenched muscle systems I currently rely upon.
I sense people clearing a path. I am grateful for every stranger getting out of my way. My path brightens. I am close. But then—
The hand chopping into my neck, upon impact, feels rather dull. It does not feel like a crushed windpipe at first. Though when I breath, only a faint whistle escapes from my lungs. The more pressing concern is that the impact at my neck triggers a burst of warmth below my waist.
As I fall to my knees then onto my back, my suspicions are confirmed. The burst was indeed more than air.
My Goggles alert me that emergency personnel have been notified, just as the same hand that crushed my throat removes the Goggles from my face.
The raw light of day. Madison’s perfect brown-eyes. I’d never actually seen them before. She is terrified. Her Goggles on her forehead.
“I’m so sorry, Hayden! I didn’t mean to! It was a defensive reaction! I thought someone was attacking me!”
Madison Coyle holds my hand as I wheeze. I wonder if the Goggles register the handholding as a “success.”
But then I hear murmurs crescendo in the periphery. Gasps. Snickers. Madison hears them as well.
I track Madison’s eye-line as it moves from my face downwards. Then her confused shame when her gaze reaches my pant-line.
I am crushed. My windpipe. My soul.
My body lets go. Completely.
Full evacuation occurs.
I try to imagine what it’s like for Madison—to accidentally kill her prospective romantic interest while the contents of his intestines overwhelm his white capris and empty onto the patterned linoleum of a mall at midday.
My vision blurs. I look upwards. Before things go to black, I realize where we are—
Big Time Screen Time.
Me and Madison Coyle, together, captured by 124 cameras, processed in real time, and displayed on the face of Big T. For peers and strangers.
I watch our ultraenhanced screen-likenesses swirl clockwise and downwards into an abyss of nano-pixels, as if being flushed.
Or perhaps that’s just the lack of oxygen.
Hayden didn’t talk much once he got back from the hospital. Doctor’s orders, partly. He needed minor throat surgery.
News of the mall incident spread instantly. How could it not? It was just so graphic. And sharable. We requested our Goggles block mention of it from our feeds. That almost made it worse. Our imaginations.
Listen, if we’d known anything like this could happen, we’d never have signed up for KHAOS in the first place, and certainly not for the PRO version. The program went rogue. We couldn’t possibly manufacture trauma at that level. We just checked a box. KHAOS PRO recalibrated on the fly. It’s not our fault.
We pulled Hayden out of school (9.0) versus keeping him in (5.3). KHAOS suggested Gwen and I say nothing of the incident to Hayden. We were advised to show our support by letting him process independently. But never admit blame.
Gwen had a much harder time with this. I had to beg her not to say anything. That’s when she started sleeping in the guest room. Soon after, she stopped wearing her Goggles altogether.
I recently reduced my own Goggle-time. Just meals, workouts, and sleep.
Gwen asked me to cancel the KHAOS membership. I did. No questions asked. It was the right thing to do.
This morning, I heard a knock on the door. It was Madison Coyle. I figured she wanted to see Hayden. Without my Goggles, I could easily see she looked upset. I thought to tell her that it wasn’t entirely her fault. But I didn’t get a chance.
She kneed me. In the nuts. Swift. Precise. Hard. I dropped. I wanted to vomit but there was nothing inside of me.
“Shame on you, Mr. Barsky!”
She ran home. I could see Phil and Kelly Coyle standing in their driveway, watching the assault—their daughter’s Krav Maga lessons having paid off yet again.
I remember sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car while she drove me home from school. I must’ve been Hayden’s age, a little younger. My mom told me she lost her job at the restaurant and we needed to move by the end of the month. I’d have to leave my friends. She said I could make new friends. But I told her making friends isn’t easy. Because it isn’t.
My father walked out on us two years earlier. My mom told me that he met someone he liked better. I thought she meant better than me. Maybe she did.
When my mom said we had to move, I lost control. I said I hated her. I hated that she lost her job. I hated that my dad found someone he liked better.
I kicked the back of her seat with everything I had.
She turned and faced me with puffy eyes and said, “I’m trying the best I can, Gwen.” And that’s when I saw the little orange flash across the road.
I heard the thud. Then I felt the thud. I turned and looked backwards through the window and that’s when I saw Eleanor, my cat. My mother had given me Eleanor to cheer me up after my dad left. Now Eleanor flopped on the asphalt in horrible unnatural ways. Pained and contorted in some heightened state I never realized possible.
My mother stopped the car. Some primal parental instinct kicked in. She immediately opened the door by my seat and pulled my head against her body. Part hug, but mostly to block the horrible sight of my cat dying a painful death. She held me close and spoke directly into my ear to drown out the noises coming from Eleanor. She told me she loved me very much and everything was going to be okay in the end. And I believed her. And loved her. And was so sorry for kicking her seat.
She held me and spoke into my ear until Eleanor stopped moving.
It’s been almost two weeks since the incident. I occasionally still hear the sounds of soft crying coming out Hayden’s room. Not the moaning of someone looking for attention. But the dull, painful whimpers of a broken little boy.
Despite Carl’s protests, I fessed up to the neighbors, which, I suppose, is how you people found out.
Somebody mentioned something about another incident, a couple towns over. I hope they’re OK. I worry that this is part of something bigger—more sinister.
This afternoon, I went to the guest room early, crawled onto the bed, and sat in quiet solidarity with Hayden for hours. I felt all of Hayden’s humiliation vibrating in the emptiness of my rotten brain. I’ve untethered myself from Goggles.
I heard a knock on the door. “Come in.”
It was Hayden. He looked skinny.
Hayden didn’t say anything. He just sort of waddled into the room. I stood up to meet him halfway. And then he wrapped his arms around me and began to cry. Softly at first. But then I felt the waves of shame compound into a hearty sob. I pulled him closer and felt my fingers through his hair as he quivered.
“It’s going to be OK, Little Bug. I promise. Everything is going to be OK.”
Within seconds, Carl hobbled to the doorway, still nursing an icepack on his genitals.
He approached us. Too chicken shit to initiate, but Hayden pulled Carl into our hug. I felt Carl’s hand on my shoulder and considered pulling back but didn’t want to risk losing Hayden in this moment. So, I accepted the détente. Hayden drew us tighter, with the kind of strength I suppose each of us possesses, even at our rock bottom. Desperate strength.
Then I felt the cries grow louder. Carl had joined. A caveman crying in duet with his son. Carl quickly escalated into a sloppy wail. It dawned on me—I’d never seen him cry before. It was oddly validating to know I married someone who can sob like this.
I noticed Mabel in the doorway, the last of the Goggled-Barskys, watching our hug triangle. An outsider. I wondered how much of the drama she’d absorbed over the last several weeks. She inched her way closer. Cautious. Clearly navigating uncharted emotional territory.
She placed her open palm on my knee. Then she placed another open palm on Carl’s knee. I felt her offer a gentle squeeze. She laid her Goggled forehead on her brother’s trembling body. Like a little alien. After a few seconds, Hayden stopped trembling.
Mabel began rocking our limbs side-to-side. I couldn’t tell what she was doing at first but I just sort of went with it. We all sort of went with it.
We swayed in the guest bedroom. An awkward quadrangle unit. A pre-teen pariah, a middle-aged mop, an alien child, and me—a bored, fucked-up mother, tending to the creatures she calls family. Feeling the depths of a love I’d never felt from them before.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt happier.
Read a response essay by Brigid Schulte, the director of New America’s Better Life Lab and the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.
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