Monday, February 15, 2021

Lake Thompson in December by Alejandro Escude

In a world where avuncular government advice is issued constantly by ubiquitous neon tickers, Bernie Navarone has had enough; by Alejandro Escude.

Bernie Navarone woke up to the neon ticker that ran along the moulding of his apartment reminding him to brush his teeth before heading off to work. It was a luminous bar, much like those one sees in stock exchanges, that ran all night. Sometimes, it kept him awake. Every apartment had one. They were installed in all households. Its sole purpose was to dole out advice and direction.

Bernie brushed his teeth as he was told. His cellphone rang.

"Hi honey," said Bernie's mother. "Don't forget to let things go at work today. I'm worried about how you take it all so personally."

"I know Mother," said Bernie, wiping his mouth with the small towel, instead of the large one. The ticker had posted that piece of advice before, and he remembered to switch the towels he used.

"I'll do better," said Bernie. "Are you going to beach with Dad after all?"

"No," she said. "We heard there was a strong current today and it was better to avoid it."

Bernie hung up with his mother and went to work at the art museum. He was an attendant at the gift shop, though he wondered why they still called it a shop. Visitors dutifully lined up to pick up their "gifts" after they'd been led by docents through all the pre-prescribed exhibits. Then, they were strongly advised on what to purchase at the gift shop.

"Is this book on Picasso really what you want?" said Bernie to the middle-aged woman who approached the counter.

She looked at him, dumbly.

"I think this print of the Guernica is a better keepsake."

The woman acquiesced.

Bernie was good at sizing up people as they approached his counter. Or at least he believed he was; as the customers approached, the computer screen in front of him flashed a photo of what item he should peddle out to the customer. The screen knew what they wanted to buy better than they did. And people followed his screen's directions because if they didn't, they were often followed by one of the tall, bulky gentlemen who stood outside the door. Bernie didn't personally know them, and he had never dared to ask either.

For lunch, Bernie walked out of the art museum and went down to the row of eateries he frequented. There was a Thai place, a pizza joint, the minimart, a Turkish kabob cart. Bernie glanced at his smart watch, and it advised him to eat something light. Ever since the watch had informed him that he was a few pounds overweight, he'd received recommendations of what and where to eat.

"Nothing too fatty, Bernie. We're working on that, remember?" the watch read, stating its commandments in the familiar tone that most instruments used to talk to their humans.

Bernie smiled down at his watch as if it were a living being.

"I think you should go for the turkey sandwich at the minimart."

Bernie sighed because the watch always suggested the same bland turkey sandwich. Only this time, Bernie's sigh was deeper, more resonant.

"You have a problem with that, dude?" the watch read. "Your heart rate just shot up. Did you become angry? Take a deep breath and hold it for at least four seconds."

Bernie stopped walking and looked around at the streets. He saw tickers installed everywhere, advising everyone what to eat, drink, and do at all hours of the day. It was lunchtime, so the orders were very diet-centric, but the tickers advised everyone all the time. Every citizen was either scanning a ticker, nodding in agreement, or looking down at their smart watches. Every now and then, standing near a corner, an alleyway, or next to a trash bin, Bernie would spot one of those same burly men who he wouldn't dare approach. Everyone was indoctrinated, since they were children, to accept that these men were indeed responsible for the safety of the city and of the nation.

"Can I get a koobideh kabab plate?" said Bernie to the man attending the Turkish food cart.

The man looked at Bernie's smartwatch and seemed a little perplexed but quickly got to work on his order. A young woman, talking into her cellphone, stood behind Bernie, waiting to order. Bernie glanced at her for longer than he should have. She was svelte and tall, with a boy's haircut, light blonde hair. He noticed that her smart watch read: "Deadre, you're free to have your kabob today. You go girl!"

As the attendant handed Bernie his order, Bernie sensed someone standing a little too close to him as he paid. It was one of the security men.

"No!" yelled Bernie as he dropped his order and took off running.

The man pursued Bernie down the street and he was gaining on him. Bernie turned into a busy shopping center and kept running. This type of chase was pretty common and Bernie could sense that the man chasing him was no longer running at his full speed.

"I'm being chased by one of the men," Bernie screamed into his phone.

He'd never been chased down before, but then again he'd never disobeyed his watch or the directions that were doled out by the city.

"Just tell them you read your watch wrong," said Bernie's mother on the line.

"Mom, I didn't read it wrong."

"But Bernie, you can't disagree, you shouldn't disagree."

"I know, but I did!"

Bernie lost the man in the shopping center. He was breathing hard as he went into a sporting goods store. His watch read: "Bernie, relax, your vitals are off the charts. Take a deep break, hold it for four seconds. The minimart is only about a five minute walk from here and you have to go back to work in twenty minutes."

His smart watch face was red. It had turned a shade of red since he'd ordered the kabob. That's what the Turkish food truck attendant had noticed. A red watch face was a serious warning sign.

Bernie walked briskly through the store. He bought a tent, a sleeping bag, and a few other supplies for camping. He knew what he needed to do. The ticker in the store advised him to buy a different sleeping bag, one made for colder weather. He ignored the ticker. He ignored the red face on his watch. He approached the cashier. Now, his watch face was blinking red. The cashier at the camping store noticed this but began ringing him up for the gear anyway.

"You sure you want that sleeping bag?" asked the cashier.

"Can you just charge me?" said Bernie.

"Yes, I think I can. But I have to call the manager. That's, that's the wrong sleeping bag. I mean that's not the sleeping bag they recommend for you."

"Who the fuck is they? said Bernie.

"My screen is telling me I should sell you a different bag. But if you really want it..."

"I'll just take the bag," said Bernie, moving all the other gear to the side.

Bernie saw that the purchase went through, so he snatched the sleeping bag, leaving the other camping stuff, and ran out of the store. The cashier, spooked by Bernie's behavior screamed: "Manager! I need the manager!"

"Stop!" shouted the sporting goods store manager as he chased Bernie. Bernie turned to see the manager chasing him, but only in a half-assed way, as if he didn't really care if he caught him or not. Still, Bernie was exhausted and his watch had turned purple, which was a sign that the citizen wearing it might need medical attention. He made it to the parking lot at the museum. He threw the sleeping bag into the trunk of his small car and turned on the ignition. He sped out of the downtown shopping area and continued driving past the city limits.

Bernie's phone rang. It was his mother again.

"Bernie, what's going on?" said his mother. My watch turned purple too and its showing me your name?"

Everyone's watch was programmed to alert any loved ones when a relative was behaving strangely or had made any out of ordinary purchases. The watch would turn half purple and let the owner know who they should be concerned about.

"Dad and I are on the way. Why are you driving out of the city? We can see your car on our screen and... what's going on?"

Bernie continued driving to a lake he'd remembered visiting as a child a few miles past the city limits. There was a camping area next to it. Bernie had a vague plan to spend the night there and just cool off and regroup from all this stress. He just needed to be away from the ubiquitous tickers, the advice, the constant monitoring. As he drove, the tickers along the side of the highway were alerting him as to where he should stop to buy gas and how fast he needed to drive in order to get to his destination; the tickers already knew where he was going and who was trying to contact him. His mother's name appeared on the ticker in bright blue neon: Flora Navarone is urgently trying to reach you. Stop the car and call Flora Navarone. Bernie tried to avoid glancing to the side. He tried to avoid looking at the screen in his car, which had also turned an ominous shade of purple. He also noticed that his car was maintaining a certain speed even if he pressed the accelerator.

"Did you make a purchase at Dixon's Sporting goods?"

"How did you like your koobideh kabob? Would you recommend it to your friend Dale?"

"Grizzly Sleeping Bags, made for the sportsmen in you!"

Bernie ignored the messages on his car screen. He felt this suffocating feeling every time a new one popped up.

Overhead, an airplane pulled an electronic banner:

"Bernie, the best time for a trip to Lake Thompson is March. This is December! This is December! This is December!"

The words wound together with the banner as it whirled in the air.

Bernie's phone rang again. On it, he could see his doctor's name. He answered the phone.

"Bernie, this is Doctor Shen. We received your test results and your liver enzymes are quite high. I'm sorry, is this a bad time?"

"Yes, doctor. I'm feeling a little on edge today. Can I call you back?"

"Yes, fine. But watch the drinking okay? I warned you that one drink a day was enough and then I saw here that the alcohol tracker installed in your kitchen is showing about two drinks a night. Don't forget what we talked about last week."

"Yes doctor. I understand. I have to go now. I just need a little rest."

"Rest?" said Doctor Shen. "Maybe you should come in, you don't sound so hot."

Bernie hung up and pressed down on the accelerator but the car remained at a steady forty-five miles an hour.

Higher speeds are not advised!

He spotted the entrance to Lake Thompson and drove right past the ranger's shack and stopped in the parking lot. In his rearview mirror, he caught sight of the ranger walking speedily toward his car.

"Sir, you need to stop and register your car," said the ranger, looking down at his phone. And we're showing that you have work today," he said, grimly. Mr. Navarone, why are you here?"

Bernie glared at the ranger. Something inside of him, deep in his core, was breaking. He felt noxious, panicked, and angry at the same time.

"Why don't you go back to your little shack and leave me the hell alone!"

The ranger turned around and walked back. On top of the ranger station, a strobe light went on. It was flashing around and around, all in yellow.

Bernie got out of the car and stared at the lake. It looked so placid compared to how he was feeling inside. He could hear his phone on the car seat ringing. He took a deep breath and looked at his smartwatch: "Flora is trying to reach you," it read. The purple face was flashing.



"How much?" said Bernie to the ranger at the shack.

"It's free this time of year," said the ranger, staring back at him, obviously concerned.

"Okay, well. Just staying the night."

"In your car?"

"I have a sleeping bag."

"Okay, well, it's going to get pretty cold out here."

Bernie nodded, walked back to the car and popped the trunk. He took out the sleeping bag and walked over to a clump of trees. He laid out his bag and sat down.

It was nearing twilight and the swallows were skimming over the lake. He laid down for a few minutes and began taking off his pants. He felt a need to go into the lake.

The water was bitter cold but he dipped own into and felt instantly refreshed. In the distance he saw a few shapes approaching. As they came nearer, he could see that they were the size of ducks. Did they think he had bread?

One sign read, "Beware of sharp rocks."

Another one read, "Colson's Beer. It's time for a Colson's."

Each one was a small advertisement in neon.

The small self-propelled signs came to within a few feet of him. He kicked them out of the way and swam out. Back on shore, he could see the ranger. He was standing there holding his phone to his ear. Bernie knew he didn't have much time. He kept swimming out until he sensed that he could no longer touch the surface with his toes.

He inhaled and submerged himself in the cold, clean water. The sky was darkening and as he peered underwater, he could see a series of lights. The bottom of the lake was lit up!

The lights were squirreling around. Were they making patterns? Was there some type of work going on at this lake? Was it even a lake? Maybe it was a reservoir. Was he in some kind of danger? Maybe the ranger just forgot to inform him the lake was off limits.

Some lights, he could see, were actually part of the rocks below. They had words on them. He could make out a few of them: Petoskey Stone, Slag, Granite. Every rock was labeled in murky neon green. A few fish swam around and he could see that they were also labeled - Carp, and farther down, Perch.

The water began to sway a bit and then a little more violently. Bernie swam up to the surface again and caught sight of the ranger. He was waving from the beach, motioning for him to come back in. There was a strange sound emanating from the lake, a low rumble, and the water level began to lower. In an instant, his feet felt the bottom of the lake and he was standing in knee-deep water, there were fish jumping out of the water, spooked by the same strange phenomenon. The lake was draining away.

In the distance, he could make out a few cars filing into the parking lot, including a large black bus. Their headlights were on. It was nearly dark. Bernie began to trudge back to the shore, toward the ranger. He could hear a few distinct shouts from the beach.

"Mr. Navarone, my name is Kacy, and I'm a psychiatrist with the state. I have a towel for you. Would you please come with me?"

"Kacy, is it?" said Bernie, his legs felt extremely weak and he struggled to form sentences. "I don't know what's going on... what's going on with the lake? Why are you here? I don't need a psychiatrist."

"Mr. Navarone. Bernie. Your family is here. They called me. They were worried about you."

Bernie looked at the parking lot and saw his mother and father standing by their car.

Kacy motioned for the family to stay where they were.

"Bernie come with me. You'll be okay. I just need to ask you a few questions. Alright?"

Bernie walked with Kacy toward the big black bus. The door to the bus swung open and Bernie found himself in a kind of mobile therapy room. There was a couch, a glass vase holding a bushel of daisies, a pitcher of water on a small table, a box of tissues.

"Kacy, I don't need therapy right now," said Bernie.

"Look at your phone," said Kacy.

Bernie looked at his phone and it read: "Mental breakdown. Need assistance. Dr. Kacy Rosen closest to patient."

"You've ignored us all day," said Kacy. "Your museum called it in. They've given you clearance for a few days to get better. There's nothing to be ashamed of."

"I know there's nothing to be ashamed of, bitch," said Bernie.

"There's no need... there's no need for that. I'm here to help."

Before entering the black bus, Bernie had spotted two large men guarding the front and back of the vehicle.

"I don't need your fucking help! I've done nothing but ditch work and take a swim!"

"We're all worried about you. Really worried. The men outside are here to make sure you make it home okay. No one is going to hurt you."

Bernie grabbed the vase on the table and smashed it against one of the glass windows on the bus. They were clearly tinted so nobody could see what was going on inside.

"Let me go home, Kacy, right now!" shouted Bernie.

Kacy backed away, and as she did that Bernie reached down for one of the large shards of the broken vase and threatened to stab her with it.

"Get away from me," he said. "Get out or I swear to god I'll cut you."

Kacy ran toward the exit and Bernie pursued. When he emerged from the bus, he felt a sting in his body. The shock of electricity ran through him and he was still wet so the shock was even more potent that it would have been.

When Bernie awoke, he was in his parent's car. The shock had worn off. He was sitting in the back seat. He could hear the faint sound of a car radio tuned to the news station.

"He's awake Carlos," his mother said to Bernie's father.

"Bernie! Welcome back," said his father in an odd, overenthusiastic tone.

"Nobody is going to press charges, Bernie," said his mother. "They understand. This happens to everyone sometimes."

"What happened?" said Bernie, feeling his dry trousers, which were back on him somehow.

"Nothing happened," said his mother. "You're just tired. He's just tired, right Carlos?"

"Yeah. I went through this when I was younger, Bernard. You just need a few days of rest."

Bernie looked down at his smartwatch and it wasn't red anymore. He rolled the car window down and was struck by the cold, crisp night air.

A thin, very faint ticker along the ceiling of Bernie's parent's car advised: current temperature 50 degrees. Close car window to avoid cold symptoms.

4 comments:

  1. My phone tells me how many minutes I am away from home when I haven’t even asked. When I Google items for sale, they pop up in my Facebook feed. So, why did I enjoy this story as much as I did?

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  2. Good story. It is definitely the direction we are moving in. But the disturbing thing is, people seem to accept it.

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  3. I'd find this story pretty far-fetched if there wasn't a pop-up add for Magic the Gathering card sleeves scrolling along the bottom of my monitor right now. I really liked the story and the indication of the slow subtle take over of tech. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

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  4. Very Orwellian. Can't even escape the system by going underwater. I can understand why so many folks have breakdowns in this place.

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