Tethered

Sans opened his eyes, his face smothered with ash and dust. His ears were ringing painfully, his arms and legs bruised and paralyzed. Around him were bodies—dead—decapitated, amputated. The explosion had killed everyone but him. It was night out, and he could hear sirens in the distance. He tried moving, but could not summon it. Even if he could, there was nowhere for him to go—everything had collapsed around him, and there was no open path. He managed to free his arm from under the body of a woman—a woman that he would otherwise have found attractive. A wooden plank protruded through her neck, her necklace shimmering through the smoke and hanging on her exposed breast. Even though hell had formed spontaneously around him, his eyes could not help but gaze. But he felt nothing.

He reached into his pocket and could feel the matte texture of his phone. He wanted to pull it out, almost instinctively, but could not summon the physics—his thigh was weighed down from pain. He shuffled his hand around and managed to break the phone loose. It was an iPhone, one of the newer models. He hugged it with his hand and brought it up to his face, as if to kiss it. Here, in a room of just minutes ago living people, he was not alone. He put his thumb to the button on the bottom of the device, and the phone vibrated. His thumb was bleeding, and the device could not trust his fingerprint. He tried a couple more times before the phone prompted him for a pin instead.

8–5–1–8

The device unlocked. He gazed at his home screen, confused as to why he had thought to take out his phone in the first place. To call 911? No—he could not speak now, nor did he wish to spend what seemed his last moments speaking to a remote worker in a call center. He stared blankly at the phone, until the screen had dimmed. He tapped his nose to the screen to bring it back to life. Ash from his hair fell onto the screen, and he puffed with what little breath he had to disperse it. Droplets of blood spat onto the screen, and he studied them with an empty gaze. Behind the surface, icons began dancing. He thought he was hallucinating, until he realized his finger had been resting on one of the icons. He traveled his thumb back to the button on the bottom, and the frenzy ceased.

There on the home screen were the applications that had come to define his life. Every morning, he would awaken and perform perhaps the same ceremony he is attending to now. He’d travel from world to world, app to app, seeking news, in the literal sense—the plural form of something new. He’d start with email, checking to see if some friendly solicitation he had sent some days ago had gotten a response. Typically, such responses never came, and he had grown accustomed to it, though still remained somewhat bitter. “How hard is it to reply to an email? Assholes.” He would attempt to talk himself down: “They’re busy people, Sans. You should understand.” But that never helped. He always took it personally.

He might then open his Twitter app, with all his 300 followers, which he had worked, not very hard mind you, eight years to acquire. His followers were not very loyal, and he often spited them for their lack of engagement with him. He very rarely had real interactions on the platform.

“This is the tweet,” he’d often say. “This is the one that’s going to go viral.” It never did of course, and that’s a reality he’s well accustomed to as well. His prized tweet, the one destined to go viral, is deleted no sooner than it’s posted, like it never happened.

He would then open Facebook, if he had it. Years ago, he had begun exploring different ideas of spirituality and religion, and all his old friends were devout. Alienated, he deactivated his account and never went back. Hundreds of friends were reduced to just one or two that he kept in touch with manually. Sad, it sometimes seemed, since he saw the connectedness it seemed to bring to other people.

At this point in the routine, after not receiving much love from the outside world, he’d drop his phone onto his chest, force his eyes shut with his thumb and index finger, and pity his life. Not depressingly, but almost instantaneously, like a flash flood that blankets the city but recedes back into the deepest depths of its sewers within seconds.

He didn’t give much love to others, so it was strange that he would be inclined to think that he should receive it back. But he had seen others who could tweet out a punctuation mark and receive thousands of likes. And his tweets were better, much better, than punctuation marks, he thought. He remained naively optimistic though. Which in many cases meant laziness.

Blood began streaming from his forehead and trickled down his nose, until it reached his lips, where he could taste its bitterness. He sputtered and attempted to cough, but his lungs were weak, and his breaths short. He knew he was going to die, although he had never experienced anything remotely close to death before. And, as someone who was morbidly fearful of airplane travel due to fear of airplane malfunction from turbulence, he was surprisingly calm now. Perhaps once you know for sure, the anxiety of it leaves the equation, and you’re left with just reality, and as barren as reality sometimes is, it’s bearable. Enough to sleep off at least, and make it to the next day.

Even now, when it counted most, Sans could not believe in the concept of an afterlife, and liked it better that way. Heaven to him was lack of consciousness, for all consciousness ever brought was worry, ambition, and pain. What could be more heavenly than eternal rest from consciousness?

His phone dimmed once again, and he carried it back up to his nose to bring it back to life. In the gray, smoke-filled room, the vibrant light emitting from his phone screen seemed to make him feel alive, and distracted him from his overwhelming desire to sleep. He scanned the screen, and found his way to the top—full signal. He shifted his gaze to the other side of the screen—the battery icon was bleeding red. Typically this would have brought him anxiety, but he did not have a reaction. Nor did he have any reaction to the constant stream of blood that dripped from his head.

He was in pain—more pain than he had ever felt before. It emanated from every part of his body, and so he could not focus on any particular pain point. His pain was blurry.

The siren sounds grew louder, but the building inside remained quiet, except for the occasional sparkle, or the crumbling of a wall. He closed his eyes and tried to draw a long breath, but could only manage a small heap of air. He felt his phone vibrate, and in the microseconds before his instinctual response to open his eyes would emerge, a spark of impulse and opportunity zipped by, like an electron beaming through a wire at the speed of light.

He had spent his whole life working with computers and on the internet, and his phone vibrating was a symbol of news and of the new. In the last several years of his life, his phone may have vibrated tens of thousands of times, and of those, only a handful were of the nature that he had hoped for: a reply to an email he had sent to some big shot entrepreneur, or a notification that someone had admired his work. The other notifications were always useless, and no matter how many times he’d unsubscribe from this or that newsletter, new ones to fill their place would always find their way through.

He opened his eyes and drew his gaze to the top of the screen, where a banner was announcing the arrival of a new message. On the left of the banner was a vibrant, multi-colored plaid icon with an S in the middle, and adjacent to that was a message that he could not make out. Not that he couldn’t read it—it was clearly in English, and he could read the individual words. He just couldn’t connect the words into a sentence. It didn’t help that blood was dripping from his brain and onto his eyes, and smudges of faint crimson streaked through the surface of the screen. No sooner does the banner arrive does it vanish, and once again, Sans is left looking at his home screen.

Even under excruciating physical pain, it hurt him more that while he lay in a pile of his own blood, life went on somewhere else. And just then he realized the insignificance of his own. Not in a dreary, nihilistic way, but in a profound, enlightening way. He need not have attributed so much significance to his goals, dreams, and desires. His purpose, it is now clear, was to live, and that he did poorly, always too fixated on what he can do today for a better tomorrow.

On any other day, epiphanies were reason to celebrate. They were checkpoints in his life, where the previous several years were validated to be not all for naught. While the passing of seconds were signified by a constant heartbeat, the passing of years were signified by epiphanies and sudden bursts of wisdom, and he was always grateful to receive them, no matter how delayed they can sometimes be.

His phone dimmed once again. He stared at it intently, but did not have any impulse to bring it back to life. He could hear shouting from the hallway on the floor below. Near the window, he could see billows of smoke animated by flashes of red and blue.

Pangs of pain shot through his neck as he looked back towards his phone, and as it could never save him before, it could not now. He gripped it firmly, and followed his index finger through the edges, traveling to the top, where a beveled button protruded subtly. He rest his finger on it for a few seconds before pressing it firmly.

Seconds later, the curtains drew, and a message appeared.

slide to power off

He looked puzzled, as if he had never seen this screen before. And perhaps he never had. He brought the dying screen to his face, and dragged his nose across it from left to right. The screen went black, and a spinner appeared on the screen. Sans’ mind ceased to function just then. And, seconds later, when the spinner went, so too did his body.


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