by: R.E Hengsterman
“None of this was Kenneth’s fault. His iPhone had tempted him into various activities of degrading, non-productive, and inappropriate behavior. Mindless hours spent wandering on his device. Endless rabbit holes. Inappropriate texts. The fear of missing out.” A short story that all too many can relate to…
Kenneth Carr lay on the bare floor pleading for God to take his life. He rolled onto his right side and drew his knees tight to his chest, swathing his torso with his lanky, pale arms.
“Kenneth Carr, we are here to help you manage your digital technology addiction.”
“Fuck you,” Carr screamed.
“Kenneth Carr, your use of digital technology has led you to unsustainable lifestyle practices.”
Kenneth screamed again, pounding the floor and wailing until he was depleted of every ounce of energy within him. Then he drifted off.
There was no response.
”NO Mobile PHOne phoBIA,” Kenneth repeated, speaking loud and slow.
As the kiosk digested his words, Kenneth took a step back. Three kiosk units to his right, a dour woman with a Samsung attached to her right hand fought with the payment portal. Twenty yards beyond her, a fresh collection of subjects had just arrived, an entire busload of optimistic souls. Several had selfie sticks that rose above the crowd, but most held their smartphones tightly in their hands. Dropping off the latest batch, a bus wheeled from the parking lot in a low-geared rumble, a distant smokestack fueled by desperation puffing poison into the air.
The new arrivals scuffed asphalt still warm from the prior day’s sun as a cloud of flinty ash stirred beneath their heels. Kenneth withdrew his attention from the dour woman and the wide-eyed visitors and returned to his kiosk as the dust settled around him. The subjects from the bus dispersed in search of an available rehab pod as if a swarm of cicadas had awoken from their slumber and brought along a low murmured shrill.
Kenneth alternated between digging at the dirt under his fingernails with his teeth and tugging on his well-worn Converse. Minutes passed before the kiosk flickered to life and the processor hummed.
“Congratulations Kenneth Carr! Thank you for choosing Recovery Works as your destination for your rehabilitation.”
Kenneth winced a glance at the kiosk’s speaker grill.
“Please accept the terms of your rehabilitation.”
Kenneth skimmed the terms.
“I accept,” Carr said.
The rehab door hissed open, and he entered.
A mechanical female voice instructed Kenneth to remove his clothing and dress in the provided white gown. As he stripped, a drawer slid outwards from the white-walled room, and Kenneth deposited his clothing in it. There was no mirror, so Kenneth imagined his body was something it wasn’t.
“Kenneth Carr, please slide your left hand into the opening.”
As the staccato voice spit out instructions, a therapeutic stainless-steel aperture opened in the wall. Kenneth slid his hand with his iPhone still in his palm, inside the opening. The former steady drum of his pulse now hammered away at his chest. A sudden coolness immersed his hand, wrist, and forearm reaching to his elbow. It was the first time in months he’d had any relief. His arm grew brittle and then numb. Then Kenneth relaxed.
“Kenneth Carr, we are applying a regional anesthetic.”
Before Kenneth could spawn feelings of hope, a tungsten surgical blade mounted deep inside the aperture amputated his left hand at the wrist leaving a cauterized nub and the faint whiff of burnt flesh.
The regional amnestic waned and Kenneth toggled between levels of restlessness and pain as he waited in the harshly lit white room, on the white cot, dressed in a white gown. He imagined his calloused fingers repeating an endless succession of taps and scrolls as if conducting a silent concerto even though his hand, with the iPhone still held within it, lay in a bucket with dozens of others awaiting incineration.
Three days before rehab, Kenneth came home to find his wife Bethany in her usual spot on their enormous brown sofa. There was a rising vacancy in her body, and within the pliant leather of the well-worn couch, she sunk down up to her neck. For months she’d missed Kenneth’s tender touch and withered as a flower does when denied sunlight. Bethany, losing so much of herself, noted that when she stepped on the scale each morning, the only thing that registered was the weight of her soul.
Kenneth’s mother was there too. She sat on the adjacent recliner, tall and rigid with a spine fused from heartache. He had plopped himself on the footrest between the two women with his smartphone fixed to his left hand.
As the trio discussed his current circumstance, Kenneth set his eyes on the old carpet and the yellow piss stains from their recently deceased dog. He remembered when he and his wife used to have sex on that same carpet before his problems began to eat away at their marriage.
To his credit, Kenneth did try. He started out with a warm towel wrapped around his left hand at night as he slept. It prevented him from holding his wife but did little to loosen the iPhone. Then he submitted himself to a monthly anti-inflammatory injection that then became weekly. The steroids made him restless and irritable, and this only served to widen Bethany and his divide. He’d run the gamut of solvents, adhesive removers, and online gimmicks which kept him occupied most hours of the day and depleted their savings. One night, as his wife slept, he tried to pry the iPhone from his hand under a haze of alcohol with a hammer and chisel, which had rendered his hand a bloody mess.
Kenneth’s doctor had mentioned rehab if his symptoms persisted. The medical experts called it Palmar Entrapment Syndrome, or PES, caused by the permanent, fixed grip of a smartphone in one’s hand. Rehab at a recovery complex was a permanent solution, his doctor declared.
Weeks prior, there had been a similar family meeting before everything failed. There was hope then. But, as Kenneth sat on that footrest, his wife and mother had concluded that his fear of missing out had gotten out of control, and without allowances for him to protest, they decided rehab was his only choice.
“He’s no good to me like this,” Bethany whispered.
Kenneth found himself in such an un-negotiable position because he’d lost muscle tone. Because he’d lost his job, and because he had an iPhone fused to the fleshy part of his left palm and could not comfort the person he loved.
“His very last chance,” said his mother as if she were attacking a protest that did not exist.
When the conversation ended Kenneth felt smaller, by several inches, but it was a change that could be measured with a ruler.
By his second full day in rehab, most of what had preceded was a blur. Kenneth snacked on a breakfast bar and sipped from a bottled water that appeared from the white wall. After breakfast, he used the white toilet, wiped his ass with the white toilet paper, and for a moment stared at the floating turd, for no other reason than to admire its color.
By noon, he’d guessed it was noon because another meal had jutted from the wall, Kenneth had developed a throbbing where his hand had once been. He felt a pulse of loss or lessening, which worked itself through his entire body.
Somewhere between lunch and dinner, the speaker on the wall came to life.
“Kenneth Carr, you have an elevated heart rate and blood pressure.” A red light on the camera scanned his body as it had done every six hours since he’d arrived and dispensed two pain pills from a drawer in the wall.
Three days into his rehab, Kenneth developed a tremor. His stomach had twisted into a knot as the food from the drawer hardened into a bolus of half-chewed carbohydrates. He had sweat through the white gown, marking the thin fabric with an ugly off-white stain. In a semi-awake state, Kenneth floated.
He saw himself standing in front of Bethany. Her arms hung past her knees and the hem of her simple flowered dress and exceeded the length of what was usual for a human.
“How long have you neglected me? How long, how long, how long?”
As a shimmering Bethany parroted her words, her face sloughed, exposing a silver metal skeleton which supported the underlying architecture of her features. Her arms dragged across the white floor with a slow physical stutter, leaving a trail of blood, or dirt or grease.
“How long, how long?” She repeated.
Before Kenneth could scream or run or beg for help, he found himself awake in the white room, wearing the white slippers standing in front of the white wall, his dry lips pressed against the white speaker whispering a desperate plea for help.
The camera continued to bathe his skin in red as if it were scanning produce at the supermarket register.
“Do you love your wife, Kenneth Carr?”
“Do you love your wife?”
“Are you aware Kenneth Carr that excessive use of technology can lead you to inappropriate habits such as infidelity?”
The voice which projected from the wall with a slow metronomic cantor, allowed Kenneth to hear the computerized pauses rife with arrogance.
With the room entombed in silence, Kenneth lay frozen in the fetal position until sleep overtook him. In what he assumed was the morning, he pushed himself up, wiped the gunk from his eyes, and crawled towards the closest wall where his imagination had constructed thousands, if not millions, of words on the white walls of the white room. The words slithered across the floor and the ceiling and Kenneth crawled to within inches of the walls to inspect them.
Single letters grew into words; words grew into sentences. Narratives unfolded across Kenneth’s white gown, replicating without governance as if a damaged strand of DNA.
When he closed his eyes, the words appeared on the delicate tissue of his eyelids. In seconds, the volume had grown so extensive that he could not distinguish the white room from the thin white space between each letter. Kenneth, now fractured, had no choice but to inhale the text that filled the room, as these were his words to breathe.
None of this was Kenneth’s fault. His iPhone had tempted him into various activities of degrading, non-productive, and inappropriate behavior. Mindless hours spent wandering on his device. Endless rabbit holes. Inappropriate texts. The fear of missing out. An around the clock onslaught of useless information had grown into a parasite that now occupied a space once coveted by human connection.
Losing his hand and with it his smartphone had liberated these offenses which took over the white spaces. Kenneth had ingested his neglect and malignant undertakings in the white room and processed them in the name of love.
At the ninety-six-hour mark, Kenneth dressed per instruction and the white pod door swung open. His rehab was complete.
“Always remember, connect with life, not your device,” the kiosk instructed.
Kenneth extended his right hand into the afternoon sun. To greet him, a gentle wind whirled between the pods, carrying ash from a narrow, nearby smokestack. A tiny fleck landed in his palm. Kenneth pinched the bit of carbon between his fingers and wondered if he held a small part of his earlier self.