A work of thought provoking speculative fiction that imagines a post social media world, one that gives rise to the Q — the most important social metric of all time, a revelation in personal vulnerability…
by: R.E. Hengsterman
Father wore clothing that signaled, “I’m a responsible adult.” Mother looked banal.
Inside the courtroom the custodial adjudicator established the children’s sleeping and after-school accommodations. There were inquiries into parental work histories, credit scores, social media presences, and their Qs. The proceedings had lasted twenty minutes.
As the judge listened, he flicked his pen against the desk, nodding in between the melodic taps. After a pause, he nudged his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. “In the best interest of the children I assign custody to the mother. The father will be the non-custodial parent, and the court will set up a visitation schedule.”
Disbelief, being a thief of protest, left the father speechless.
A month later, after Youngest and Eldest settled in with Mother, the first custody swap took place in the parking lot of the Mt. Moriah Christian Church on a Sunday, catty-corner to the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen which sent wafts of fowl grease into Jesus’ house.
The night before his first scheduled visitation, Father dreamt of his children. He was in a wistful space when they appeared from the vapors, rushing to his side, their arms wrapping around his waist, their sobs overtaking his weeping, and their whispered promises filling him with warmth. He drew them closer, squeezing until the heat climaxed with a shimmer and he found himself alone again. It was within this space that Father realized his longing was immeasurable and his grip too constricting.
Father arrived early at the pickup location, swatted the crumbs from the backseat of his car, straightened his hair in the mirror, and worked the wrinkles from his shirt with a pair of moist palms. Having his knowledge of parenting scuttled in the chaos of divorce, he was as nervous as the day his children first arrived into the world.
Mother arrived late, parting the Catholic reverence of noon church-goers with frantic hands shoved out the car window. After parking, she motioned everyone into position as Eldest live-streamed their belongings from one trunk to the other. Youngest and Eldest mumbled beneath the incessant chatter of Mother’s instruction during the changeover.
“The Q loves angst,” Eldest blurted. Mother beamed. Father shrugged.
“Eldest gets it honest,” Mother said.
Before the Q, social media and external validation were ubiquitous. No matter your status everyone needed affirmation. But beneath the surface a backlash festered until a string a high-profile suicides obliterated the facade. The founders of Instagram, SnapChat, and a handful of other social media framers and influencers ended their lives within weeks of each other. What followed was a rash of housewives, teens, and mid-life crisis addled dads doing the same. From these tragic losses came the Q.
Wired called the Q the most important social metric of our time, a revelation in personal vulnerability. Time honored the Q’s founder as Person of The Year. Across the world millions disseminated their hardships through raw and vulnerable live-streamed snippets in search of a higher Q, in search of salvation.
“Your Q rating matters,” Mother yelled. “Couples who Q together have higher vulnerability ratings.”
“Bullshit,” Father said. “It’s bullshit. I’m not sharing the intimate details of my life with the entire world. I don’t care what a higher Q brings.”
Mother had the lowest Q rating in the subdivision, in part because Father refused to Q-share, making her a social pariah among their peers. Father saw Mother as Q desperate and her friends saw her as Q insignificant. The squabble between Father and Mother widened an emotional fissure to an irreparable extent.
Before long, Mother’s pursuit of a higher Q morphed her into something unrecognizable.
One night after they fought, Mother slipped into the bathroom where she reddened her face with her own hand and streamed a tearful share onto the Q.
“Father beat me,” Mother sobbed.
Mother’s Q jumped tremendously that evening, and it wasn’t long after that she filed for separation, understanding the Q-value of a contentious divorce and custody battle. Youngest and Eldest soon developed a similar embellishing affinity for the Q.
Weekend visitations were an opportunity for Youngest and Eldest to share their struggles as products of divorce, but what Father experienced with each visit was a soul-crushing case of déjà vu.
Q whispers overtook everyday conversation as Youngest and Eldest trimmed their words towards Father, withdrew their affection, and encouraged his despair in pursuit of a higher Q.
After several months of mounting frustration, Father sat Youngest and Eldest at the kitchen table.
“You need to drop the Q,” Father said. “It’s no good for you.”
Youngest shot a glance that ricocheted off stale-faced Eldest. After a long pause they chorused, “No. Just because you won’t share doesn’t mean we can’t. Sharing might save your life.”
Youngest extracted her device, tapped on the Q app and typed in Father’s name.
“See.” Whirling her phone. “Zero, zilch, nada.”
“Q insufficient?” they jeered. “You don’t exist without a decent Q.”
Father’s face sunk.
“You can’t make us drop the Q app,” Eldest said. “I won’t let you.”
After Youngest and Eldest left that Monday morning, Father stood in front of the mirror examining his broken-heartedness through smudges in the glass, noting the sharp collarbones erupting beneath his T-shirt and the thinness overtaking his face.
“Fuck the Q,” Father muttered.
Cinching his sneakers, Father ran around the block and through the park. He ran until the sun receded and his ribbonlike limbs glistened under the moonlight. Then he went further, pushing through his roaring flank pain and tea-colored urine, moving until his lips parched, tongue turned bone-dry, and lungs bled.
Then with sunrise his body slackened and he could not run anymore.
“I can’t force them to come,” Mother said.
“Ask again, you need to ask again. It’s my weekend.”
“I’ll try,” Mother said before the call went dead.
Father pocketed his phone and wailed.
When his heart no longer pounded and his hands shook less, he called and begged Youngest to come because their bond still had threads of love. She agreed.
Incident Number: 07-27541
October 19, 2020
Operator: 911, do you need police, fire, or medical?
Caller: Help, my father has a gun.
Operator: Is anyone hurt?
Caller: Not yet.
Operator: Where are you calling from?
Caller: 83 Wilborn Avenue. Behind the (inaudible)
Operator: 83 Wilborn?
Caller: Police. I need the police.
Operator: OK, I’ve got an officer on the way. What’s your name?
Operator: Eldest, is there anyone else in the house?
Caller: Youngest is here with me.
Operator: Is she safe?
Caller: Yes, but Father might shoot.
Operator: Eldest, the police are on their way, stay on the line for me.
Operator: Eldest, what’s Father’s number? The police will try to contact him.
Operator: Get somewhere safe.
Father answers the call from negotiator Lynch at 1:24 p.m.
Negotiator: Can you tell me what’s going on so I can get you help. Do you have a gun?
Subject: Ummm. I think you have the wrong house. I didn’t call the police. Do you understand? No one’s in danger.
Negotiator: I do. I get what you’re saying. What I’m trying to do here is make sure no one gets hurt.
Subject: (expletive) no, I told you. You have the wrong house. I don’t have a gun and no one’s in danger.
Negotiator: Just stay calm, sir, and we’ll get everyone out. Let’s get your children out of danger and then we can talk.
Subject: (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) Youngest and Eldest aren’t in danger. They’re upset over the divorce. But not in danger. You have the wrong house.
Negotiator: Sounds as if your divorce has upset you. Maybe we can find a solution together and keep anyone from getting hurt.
Subject: (inaudible yelling)
Negotiator: Hello, sir? Are you there? You need to talk to me. I don’t want this to escalate.
Subject: I’m still here. My (expletive) divorce is none of your business. There is no danger. I don’t know why you’re outside my house! (expletive) my (expletive) (expletive) alone.
Negotiator: Sir, stay calm. We can talk this out before anyone gets hurt.
Incident Number: 07-27541
October 19, 2020
Caller: Father’s coming. He’s screaming for Youngest, he (unintelligible) help us. Father(unintelligible), don’t—
** End Transcript **
By Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org, (860) 888-6000 Posted Oct 20, 2020 at 12:23 PM
LOCAL—A local man was shot in a standoff when police responded to a domestic disturbance. The incident began around 1:00 p.m. when an argument broke out between a father and his children. Police say a recent divorce and loss of custody may have been a motive.
The lieutenant in charge reported that during the confrontation the suspect became agitated and aggressive. At one point the suspect threatened the children with a handgun. Police shot and killed the suspect. An active police investigation is underway.
“The safety of our citizens is of the utmost importance to the police department,” the lieutenant said.
“We’re just glad we’re safe,” the eldest said after their live-stream drew international attention. “It was a heroic Q share,” the Mayor said. “Such courageous children. We can all learn something from their vulnerability.”
R.E. Hengsterman is an award-winning writer and photographer. He lives in North Carolina with “the family” and sometimes wears pants. His work can be found at www. rehengsterman.com and the occasional tweet @robhengsterman.