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Excerpt from Screen

MISHA SAT CROSS-LEGGED on the floor and examined her fingers as she always did when she returned. One of her fingernails was longer than the rest, and this was the first time she had noticed but otherwise all was fine. Misha’s fluffy white dog, Poof, sniffed her fingers as he enjoyed partaking in any shared activity. His floppy ears flew up and down as he yipped excitedly in circles around her. The amount of time that had passed was still mysterious to her, so Misha wandered to the small adjoining kitchen, her joints a little stiff and unyielding to her weight as if they had taken time off from supporting her body. It was one o’ clock, not a second too early or too late. Sometimes she wished the clock would develop a mind of its own and fool everyone.

Here at home, the skies were clear and blended easily with the sunshine for a perfect San Francisco afternoon. You could stick your hand out and imagine it on a two-dimensional plane with the rest of the world around you, like a postcard. Not real enough. Misha sighed and flipped on the big screen, bypassing her inbox, task lists, and everything else so she could catch some entertaining shows for a change. A re-run of Trivia Time aired on channel 7, three digital contestants mounted on podiums and ready to buzz in the correct answer. India was currently in the lead, but Japan was a close second as the dapper host flashed the next question on the Trivia screen. “Who was the first celebrity actor to fly to the moon during the year 2013?”

Misha stared at the digital contestants as each screen tallied the corresponding country’s correct answers. “How boring,” thought Misha. She turned off the big screen and sat on the couch for a second. Her nerves were tingling a little too much these days and were keeping her up at night. A buzz ran from her neck to her shoulder blades, and would shoot off to unexpected places from there. Rummaging through her purse, she picked up a small bottle and ran her finger around the cap. This bottle was illegal, but it had helped her get through the past two years of her life. The body buzz was getting worse, and she didn’t know what it was ultimately progressing toward. Some people fried slowly, others short-circuited abruptly. She knew her buzz was a warning from her body, but she was scared to attend to it and didn’t know what to do anyway. As these thoughts lingered on her nerve endings, they seemed to fry the synapses even more. After all, the buzz had taken the place of cancer as the leading cause of death in the world. Almost everyone had it to some extent. She couldn’t handle too much more today, Misha thought, as she heard her phone ring on the big screen.

Misha followed the sound of the incessant phone beeping toward the living room and hovered her finger above the phone application icon on the big screen. “Hello?” Misha’s face scrunched up with the question. It had been close to ten years since she enjoyed interacting with other human beings, but she had not uttered this to anyone except Poof. Misha paused in silence as the person on the other end seemed to be communicating something with returned silence. “Hello?” Misha quickly tired of these games. She had noticed a trend starting when she was in college and it had gotten worse ever since: People would call you and have nothing to say when you answered the phone. The telephone seemed obsolete, electronic mail had turned into drifted smoke never to be read or answered, and mailed letters had died off decades ago, at least from what Misha had learned at the city’s Technological History Museum.

It had been months since anyone had called her, and certainly cancelling the phone app would save her a little money; in this world, a little was a lot. Misha rolled her eyes and made one more attempt. “Hello? Hello?” Someone cleared her throat delicately on the other end. “Can you hear me?” Misha asked. “Yes . . .” the response trailed from the caller. Misha felt a little relief and continued, “How can I help you?”

“Misha,” the caller attempted, “this is Tsai.” Misha felt a softening of all her nerve endings, as if a perfect breeze had picked up from underneath some window and had stripped her of all rigid defenses with its ease of lightness. The name ‘Tsai’ catapulted her years back to a time she could hardly recall, it had been so long. Tsai had been the Taiwanese last name of her close friend, Ann. Misha had rarely called her friend “Ann,” preferring instead to call her “Tee-sai,” a mispronunciation of Ann’s last name. Tsai used to think it was funny. Misha’s brain tapped at her urgently to close the memory back up. Family members had reconnected with her in years past, and friends had unexpectedly been in touch, each time bringing back that familiar yet historical feeling of interaction. Yet the communications that had been set in motion each time had somehow been foiled, muddled and confused like a trail or a scent never to be traced again. After all this time, Misha could not grasp who destroyed the evidence or thwarted it after its very inception.

“Misha, it’s really me—Tsai. Please don’t hang up.” Misha had no intention of hanging up. She was just too paralyzed to know what action to take next. The history between her and Tsai was not easy to sum up, and after the movement of the world in its own direction, it was hard to know what turn the friendship had taken. While plenty of people still immersed themselves in social activity through the big screen, Misha’s social life was virtually empty.

“Hi Tsai…how’ve you been?” Misha was nervous and her heart began to beat unwittingly as if clear and imminent danger were present. Tsai was obviously nervous too, and she strung together a bunch of ums and uhs as she began to explain her reason for calling. Misha interrupted her abruptly, “Tsai, it’s okay. It’s been a long time.” Tsai sighed and continued, “Misha, I’ve thought about you so often and I wanted to call you so many times. You’re one of the only people who still has a phone, it would have been so easy. I’m sorry, I chickened out. You’ve been on my mind. Can we meet?”

Misha’s mind blasted to what she imagined for their proposed meeting. Out of anyone she could see right now, she most welcomed a meeting with Tsai. “Sure, how about one o’ clock tomorrow at Minnie’s, where Chestnut meets the Embarcadero? It’s a real coffee shop, not one in the big screen. Do you still live around here?”

“I do—I can meet you then.” Their conversation ended and both girls hung up, sitting respectively in expectant silence wondering what tomorrow’s meeting was going to lead to. For Misha, there was no need to eke out a phone conversation that was fifteen years too late in its ability to be casual. As a young girl, Misha would have described a lot of her human interactions as both awkward and natural all at once. These days, she didn’t know how to describe them and felt inept for it. Her family no longer contacted her, as she seemed to make their lives scarier and more precarious somehow. Not that she meant to.

Poof turned up at Misha’s knee as she knelt on the carpet, rubbing against it like a cat. Poof had always been more like a cat than a dog. He also had a keen sense for significant human moments when they broke the monotony of days strung together, much like a cat. Poof looked at Misha inquisitively, asking for some sign of what it was all about. Misha reached into a bag of dog treats instead as the dog would be unable to process any human answer. She had managed to skip her own lunch as usual, and it was already time to head back to work.

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THE BIG SCREEN LOOMED in the distance in her living room, never quite fitting into or setting décor for the space. Its dimensions almost reached the proportions of the wall it stood against, yet some homes had even larger ones or those that covered multiple walls. A circular blue “zoom” mat stood arm’s distance from the screen and had been calibrated by some high-tech company exactly for Misha’s weight and build. It was to send her into the screen, where her job was located. Misha snuggled her dog affectionately before leaving — it was never easy for her to tear herself away from the natural feel of four real walls, a sensitive canine, and smells. Beyond the screen, the world was devoid of scent, leaving the body absent of one of its important sensory skills.

As Misha stepped onto the zoom mat, the mat calibrated to standardized dimensions and accepted her weight and build as unique identification. After the screen performed a quick dental scan, the horizon of the virtual world melted with that of reality in less than a second, without Misha having to press a single button. The clock was set to zoom her into the screen environment at the exact appointed second, and if she was not present—well, she knew from experience what would take place in that event. Her nerve endings vibrated and she developed a poignant eye twitch in her right eye. The eye twitch spread like wildfire through her whole body as the two environments married into one.