Screen Time

Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz.

The boy rolled over on his bed, arm outstretched to his nightstand. His fingers fumbled in the dark around the metal surface until they caught hold of a bit of plastic. His Screen was buzzing and whirring, an alarm he’d set a few hours before was finally going off. Today was the day of The Great Game.

But first, there were a few trivial tasks to complete.

The boy snapped his finger once, and the lights turned on. His eyes burned from the brightness. Shutting them half-closed, he shuffled into his closet with Screen in hand. He quickly dressed himself, checking his Screen between each article of clothing. Nothing too important was on the agenda other than The Game; a few family notices, a news report about a Screen-related train wreck and some local station obituaries. It was just another day on station. For now.

The boy walked into his bathroom, the cold tile tickled his feet in spite of his socks. He propped his Screen up against the mirror before turning on the sink. He watched for more updates as he brushed his teeth. A wayward bristle drew blood on his gum. He hardly noticed. It’d happened so many times before. He began to reach for the mouthwash.

His bathroom rituals completed, he and his Screen headed through the house to the dining room. He passed through the living room as he went. The colors were neutral greys, not calming or exciting. The environment was nice and relaxed, with a small table, a couch and a few chairs for guests. It was standard for rooms on the station to be non-threatening and simple. Anything else might draw attention away from important updates on the Screen.

The boy saw his mother and sister sitting on opposite ends of the couch.

His mother was engrossed in an internet soap opera, either “Don Johnson” or “The Stranded Ship”. He wasn’t sure. She dedicated most of her time to either soaps or work. The boy saw his mother pause her Screen from time to time to text his father a quick command. She then returned to her show.

His twin sister Desirae played tennis on her Screen. A quick look at her opponent revealed it to be the next door neighbor: Mariah. His sister had been friends with Mariah for almost seven years now, all through secondary school. They’d play tennis near daily. The boy himself had a crush on Mariah. He’d eyed her from time to time in the hallway collecting the daily ration, her eyes fixed on her Screen. He thought about sending her a message. He never knew what to say. He also wasn’t sure that Desirae would approve. It was easier to leave it alone.

The boy entered the dining area. It was much as the last room: grey, calm, simple. The Chef-Bot was shut off, its functions either complete or unnecessary. A large refrigerator claimed a small corner of the room, the dining table dominating most of the space. A small island counter sat central between the table and kitchen cupboards, with enough walking space to move anywhere in the room single-file.

The tile on the floor chilled the skin of his soles, his socks failing him again. His father had demanded tile for any room where there could be liquid spills. His mother argued against it because of the availability of cleaning robots and services.  There were vehement arguments between his parents over this point, some of which would even take place without using Screens. He thought his father’s destructive tones could be heard all over the station.

He saw his father sitting at the table. The room was dim-lit, and the boy could see a red light glinting in front of his father’s mouth. His father often smoked without a vent nearby, which defied an ordinance in place to prevent air contamination. Station Authorities had fined him before, but he never seemed to care. The chill of the tile was nothing compared to his father’s gaze. Blue eyes, piercing and unforgiving, honed in on the boy.

“Good morning. Or good afternoon, actually. Enjoy your 13 hour nap?” His father inhaled a big drag off the cigarette, and blew it into the open air.

“It was acceptable, father.”

“Acceptable”. His father snorted. “Great. Glad you had some acceptable sleep. Hope the breakfast I cooked is acceptable.” Another cloud of smoke floated in the air.

The boy opened the fridge and observed his father’s handiwork. Pig slices neatly arranged in strips over a few scrambled chicken fetuses on a plate, with a plastic fork stuck through the meat. His mother and sister hated this meal. The boy pretended to with rehearsed grimaces at every bite while they were in view. In truth, he always felt some sort of guilty pleasure when he was treated to this breakfast. There was something about this dish that he loved, and none of the Chef-Bot’s talents could compare.

“Yes, father. This should be acceptable.”

“Great. Come sit over here with your old man.” His father pushed the chair nearest him back with his foot.

The boy carefully walked over and sat next to his father. It was rare that anyone in the family dined together. The boy ate in silence, save the whoosh of blowing smoke and wet noise of food being separated from plate.

“Mom still watching her soaps?”

“Yes, father.”

“Figures.” His father quickly checked his Screen. He dropped it on the table with a bang. “Big Game tonight huh?”

“Yes, father.”

“Think we’ll win this time?”

“I think we’ve won every time father. All twenty years.”

“Yeah, I think we have.” His father sighed. “I hope we lose this time.”

The boy felt his jaw hang open. A bit of chicken fetus fell back on his plate. No one wants to lose The Game, the boy thought. We can’t.

“Father, why would you say that?”

“Because I mean it, I hope we lose.” A grim smirk went across his face. “I wanna know what happens if we do. How it feels. See how your mom feels about it.”

“The whole station would suffer, father. You can’t say things like that.”

“Yeah? Maybe we need to suffer a little.” His father checked his Screen. The boy could see a grimace on his face, a snarl illuminated by the blue light. “We need something.”

“Some people who lose don’t get to play again, father. We have to win. The rations…”

“Like I said, I hope we don’t. I don’t think we will. Station IX is more desperate than us. More hungry. They aren’t FUCKING WATCHING SOAPS OR PLAYING TENNIS!” His father’s outburst made him blink. The silence that followed manifested in shivers along his spine. The air felt thick when the boy was breathing in, like he was breathing against a vacuum. His father sighed.

“That girl next door sent your sister a message.” The tones were collected, his father’s anger had subsided. “She wanted to Screen-Time you, or whatever the hell it is.”

The boy’s heart nearly leaped out of his chest. “Did she really, father?”

“Yeah, she did.” His father sipped an unknown beverage in the darkness. The clink signified glass, which was another strike against station ordinances. “You should talk to her before The Game. Never know how things might go.”

The finality in his father’s voice suggested that this conversation was at it’s conclusion. The boy began retreating to his room, plate in one hand and Screen in the other.

“Hey, son?” He heard his father’s voice call over his shoulder.

“Yes, father.”

“Enjoy your breakfast. I love ya, kid.” The clink of the glass against the table resounded through the kitchen, ringing in the boy’s ears.

“I love you too, father.”

The boy set down his food on his nightstand before closing the door to his bedroom. He stared at his Screen for a moment, ready to send a Screen-Time request to Mariah. It would be their first conversation together.

He thought about what his father said. He looked at his Screen for a moment. The boy set it down on his bed. Face down.

The boy reached for his plate, and slowly ate his breakfast. Each bite was different, the taste of spices and meat intermingling on his tongue. Never had he enjoyed a meal without his Screen before. It was the best breakfast he’d ever had. He was tempted to go back out for seconds, to ask his father about how he’d made it.

Bzzzt. Bzzzt. Bzzzt.

Mariah wanted to Screen-Time him.

He set down his plate, accepted the request and began his first conversation with his next-door neighbor.





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