Eric found it deeply satisfying that he could pull his kayak up and out of the state put-in, load it on the jeep with his other gear, and drive all the way to midtown without speaking to another human being. His month in the Moose River Wilderness Area had gone exactly as planned: serenely human-free. To continue that all the way down to the city—of course he’d seen people in their cars sailing past on the highway, but that was hardly contact—and not have to speak only extended the bliss. And it made the street-level reconnection with civilization so much more jarring.
“Hello, Eric!” a young woman said cheerfully as he lugged gear along his block.
“Hello.” He nodded to her and tried to recall her name, but she kept going and he couldn’t remember her anyway. Some acquaintance.
“Hello!” said a man cleaning up after his tiny dog. “Have a good camping trip, Eric?”
“Uh, yeah…” Eric kept going but looked back once at the man who still stood watching him. Eric recognized him as living on this street but didn’t know him, had never spoken to him. What the hell?
When it happened again—“Good to see you, Eric!” from another stranger—he set down his gear and stood, hands on hips, surveying the street. An older couple walked by and greeted him pleasantly. He just stared. They also greeted the man and his dog. Eric looked up and down his sidewalk and then the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street and saw that people were greeting each other as their paths crossed. It appeared that no two people, no matter how unlikely their connection, seemed able to cross paths without acknowledging one another.
He looked down at his gear and tried to make sense of this. What could happen in a month to change the anonymous city into a little village? What in hell?
* * *
In the vestibule of his building he eyed the bundled armload of mail on the floor by his box but kept going with his gear to the elevator. Once inside his apartment he immediately fired up his tablet to order the fishing rod holder he needed for the coming weekend in the Catskills. He’d dropped his old one in the Sacandaga River early in the trip and couldn’t retrieve it. He didn’t want to forget to order a new one.
Once that was done and the new one on its way, he headed back to the lobby. He could hear that the elevator was way up top, so he took the stairs quickly down the three flights to collect his mail, like so much firewood, into the crook of his arm. The elevator was opening behind him as he straightened with the load.
The occupant, an older gent whom Eric recognized but whose name he couldn’t recall, stepped out and smiled at Eric.
“Good trip?” the man asked.
Eric looked hard at him but saw no malice. Of course, the neighbor could see from all the mail that he’d been away. So he answered, vaguely, “Yeah, just what I needed…”
The older man nodded happily but then grew more serious. “You know, Eric, if you’re looking for a kayak rod holder, you can’t do much better than the Brocraft Powerlock Fully Adjustable Rod Holder. It received four and a half stars. And that was from sixty-five reviewers!”
Then he nodded “goodbye” and went outside.
* * *
“Adirondack Eric!” laughed Broder as he answered Eric’s call. “Are you the new French Louie? Got a hut up there in the woods to hide in now?”
“So how was it? Did you clear out the demons? I pictured you dressed like Tarzan, yodeling at the moon. Are you back to normal?”
“Uh… Yeah. It was perfect! After the first day in I didn’t see anyone until this morning when I got out. Heard people a couple of times, but got away from them before I could see them.”
Broder laughed. “Of course. A normal reaction…”
“I felt great driving down here, and then I got on the street and… the weirdest shit is going on! Strangers know my name. A guy in this building—who I don’t know—offered me advice on what to buy. He was talking about something I just bought online, like, seconds before!”
“Okay,” Broder said. “I thought it started before you left but, yeah, I guess it began just as you were going into the woods.”
“ClearCloud. It’s been synced to all our cells. It’s no big deal.”
“Um, I guess it’s a program. It’s not an app. It lets people know your name, what you’re interested in.”
“That’s no big deal? That’s your life. Your privacy!”
“Yeah. Okay. For a Clint Eastwood loner like you, maybe it’s an inconvenience. But the rest of us are enjoying it. I think it’s great! We’re not all living in our own little world anymore. Have you been in the subway? It’s like we’re all at the same cocktail party now. Ha—I’d be careful if you look at porn, though! You’ll get some interesting remarks on the street. I’ve heard.”
“That’s nuts! I don’t want any remarks on the street! I don’t want people to know my name!”
“So, turn off your phone.”
“That’s all you have to do?”
“Okay. I’m turning it off right now.”
“Bye. And welcome home!”
“Thanks. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Not without your phone. And, you know, I think you and your neighbor are wrong about that rod holder. You should try the YakAttack Omega Pro Rod Holder with LockNLoad Track Mounting Base. It also got four and a half stars…”
Eric looked down at his phone and stopped the conversation, but he didn’t turn it off right away. He scrolled to the bottom of his contacts and tapped Jill and stared at her number. He wasn’t sure if he owed her a call or not. He wasn’t sure about their relationship, if there even was one anymore. They had been drifting, or lurching, apart for some time. It had nothing to do with his dropping off the grid for a month. Jill was for that. But she was complicated, and he was not. She was the one person he missed when he was alone, and now he needed to hear her voice.
She did not answer. Her voicemail was full. An artist, she lived illegally in her space, a Long Island City studio. He shut off his cell and went out to find her.
* * *
No one spoke to him on the street. He got a curious look or two. He knew now that they were trying to read him and were miffed when they could not. The looks he got were little more than glances, but they contained irritation, as though they had seen him tossing away a wrapper.
Riders talked with one another on the subway train. The car was loud with conversation. People recommended products, vacation destinations, websites to one another. After the door that he stood near slid open at the next station down from his and disgorged people, a young woman entered and claimed a spot near him. She immediately launched into a conversation with a middle-aged man who had been seated when Eric got on.
“I think that what your daughter would really enjoy for her birthday is the new TalkTyper from talktyper.com. It will help her a lot.”
“Well, thanks, Wendy! I’m happy we’ve met! I’ll check it out. You should check out Hunker for help removing the gum from your suede boots.”
“Will do! Thanks!”
But Arthur seemed naturally reticent. The conversation quickly reached its end. They smiled at one another. Then they looked at Eric. They did not hide their disapproval. Wendy was not the quiet type.
“Why aren’t you on?”
Eric, affronted, stared at her. He wanted a harsh riposte but instead said simply, “I’m not ready.”
* * *
He looked intently about the streets as he entered Jill’s neighborhood. She often took walking breaks from her work to clear her head and to escape the close walls of the studio. But he did not see her so he kept on to her building.
He had no way in. The street door was secured by a coded lock. He tried the last code he knew but was sure it wouldn’t work—the digits were changed often—and it did not. He banged on the door and was surprised by how little sound it generated. The door was solid and tight. So, he crossed the street and looked to her third-floor window to think.
The sun’s glare off the glass kept him from seeing if the room was lit. If she was working, it would be lit. But the reflection was so bright that she could be pressed against the glass and he wouldn’t see her. But he knew that, sitting or standing, she most likely had the outdoors somewhat in view.
Eric crossed back over and stood beneath her window. He tried her cell again. No answer. So he shut his off. Then he made a bow toward the building, and as he rose from it gave an underhand toss of his cell straight up, hoping it would dance in her vision when it reached its zenith, before dropping away.
The first toss wasn’t bad but only reached her sill. The next arced wildly beyond and he had to bolt across the sidewalk to save the cell from smashing on a parked car’s hood. He was more careful with the third, and it was perfect, slowing as it reached her window then revolving at its center before dropping away. It landed in his cupped hands and bounced out to the concrete. He retrieved it and it was fine.
A mailman was opening a mail storage box in front of the next building. He had been watching Eric wordlessly. Eric bent for the next toss and made another good one. The mailman was heading toward him now, and Eric decided to try something he was sure was futile: ask the mailman if he had access to the building and if he would let Eric in or go to Jill’s and roust her for him.
He nodded to the mailman and turned to point to the door. Jill stood there.
“Yes!” Eric said.
“It worked,” the mailman said. “But you need to turn it on.”
Eric ignored him and hurried up the steps. Jill’s eyes narrowed as Eric, cell in hand, approached her happily.
“Is that on?” She pointed.
He looked to his phone. “No!” He took a step back to regard her. “It’s crazy what’s going on!”
Suspicion dropped away as Jill’s face crumpled… “OH MY GOD, ERIC, I WAS SO AFRAID THEY GOT YOU TOO!”
He dropped the phone as she fell into his arms. “It’s just… nuts! They’ve gotten into our minds somehow and people just accept it!”
“But we didn’t,” she said, looking up into his eyes. “And we can’t be the only ones. There must be more like us!”
“You would hope…”
They held each other until Jill broke away.
“My parents! I’ve been thinking about them but…” her voice trailed off. “I’ve got to get to them before it’s too late!”
“Have you talked to them?”
“I was afraid. I was afraid that they might have turned…” Jill’s voice caught and she buried her face in Eric’s chest.
“We can drive up there today,” Eric said.
“I’m afraid of what we’ll find.”
“Here…” Eric separated them. He picked up his phone and turned it on. “Call them.”
Jill looked fearfully at the cell.
“You have to.” He handed the phone over. “Call.”
She took it and looked into his eyes. He nodded reassuringly. So she called, on “speaker.” Her father’s cell rang just once.
“Dad! It’s Jill! How are you?”
“Jill? Good. But that’s not what I’m getting… Oh. It threw me there—you’re on Eric’s phone. How are you?”
“I’m okay. A little nervous… It’s the cell phone thing. It’s scary! You know, the new thing where everybody knows you and your—”
“Oh, we love it!” Dad interrupted. “I was about to tell you to go with the Brocraft Powerlock Fully Adjustable Rod Holder, but then you don’t kayak or fish! Very confusing. But, of course, you’re on somebody else’s phone. Not even sure that’s legal, kid. Get your phone and use it. Join the rest of us!”
“Let me talk to Eric—I really feel strongly about the Brocraft.”
Eric had to catch the phone as it slipped from Jill’s hand and she collapsed against him. “I got it, Phil. And I’ll check it out. But we have to go. Just wanted to say ‘Hello’”. He shut off the cell.
Jill sobbed against him.
“Let me help you upstairs.”
* * *
She was inconsolable, lying facedown on her narrow futon. Eric looked from her to the images she had lately been working on. All dark. He looked out the window that he’d been throwing his cell into. Filled with sunlight.
The idea that you walk around like an LED billboard flashing your life so everyone can see, to attract strangers like moths… How can everyone just agree to that? But they can’t all—there must be resistance. He and Jill couldn’t be the only two. He googled “stop the new app” and was heartened to see that there were several entries. But when he clicked them, one by one, the pages couldn’t be found. They had been removed, shut down.
“There’s a way to fight this bullshit!” he said aloud.
That’s it! Fight it with bullshit. He googled as many things that he could think of that were completely out of character for him: metal-working, transsexuals, fortune cookie fortune writing, foot-binding, velvet curtains, ballet lighting, Inuit diet, casserole recipes, toenail polish, hot air balloons, guinea pigs…
“I’m going down to the street—be back in a minute.”
Jill didn’t stir.
At first, he couldn’t tell if the experiment was successful. The first three or four pedestrians passed him silently but glanced at him shrewdly. And not kindly. Then a middle-aged couple stared at him as they approached. The man didn’t hide his contempt, but he didn’t vocalize it either. The woman did.
“Society is built on a pact between its participants. Refuse that pact and you are not part of society.”
“What happened to freedom?” Eric asked.
“You’re free to be ostracized,” she said, smugly, before turning away.
Then it was three guys about his age. Up the street they were loose and joking. As they drew closer, they tightened up and grew aggressive. They planted themselves in Eric’s path.
“Stop the new app, Eric?” the middle one said with a violent leer. “Who the fuck are you?”
“We all have to go back ’cuz you don’t like it?” the one on the right asked. He spat on the sidewalk between them.
The one on the left pointed at him and looked to the other two. “Fucker’s a dictator in the making.”
The middle one moved in close. “C’mon, Dictator, tell us what to do.”
Eric backed away, tried to push down the aggression with his hands. “I’ve just got issues with it myself. You do whatever you want.”
The three moved in closer.
“Well, THANK YOU FOR YOUR PERMISSION, ERIC!”
They were going to launch themselves on him…
Eric turned and bolted and covered half a block before looking back. They hadn’t pursued him. He shut off his phone and continued on. He was hoping to walk and think, to work out what to do, but the people passing by were aware that his cell was off. He got dark looks from all of them and a couple of comments. He hurried back to Jill’s.
* * *
She stood, bathed in sunlight, gazing out the window. She held her cell. She didn’t turn around.
“I had to check my phone to see, you know… We just hung up on my father! He called back. Said he was worried about me. We had a nice talk. About the new program and everybody knowing everything. He said everybody knows everything anyway and it means that nobody knows nothing.”
She continued looking out the window.
“I’m still not sure about all this, but maybe it’s not as bad as we make it out to be.”
When she turned around to look at him, despite his shocked expression, she said, “I can’t read you at all. Why aren’t you on?”
* * *
Eric was running now, back to the subway. He would run to his borough if he could to avoid the train, but it was too far. He had to get back to the woods. He saw that now.
In the subway, he was the pariah. Public Enemy Number One. He held to the platform as far from the others as he could until the train came in, but he still got disdainful glances. Once in the car, there was no avoiding close contact with them. He stayed close to the doors, his adrenalin soaring as they slid shut.
The unspoken rule of zero eye contact between strangers was no longer valid. He had a full audience. Everyone looked at him. The atmosphere inside the noisy car quickly grew heavy with anger and anxiousness.
The attitude of a sitting woman who had been in the car already when it arrived and who had been carrying on a lively and warm conversation with her partner, another woman, changed to darkness and fury like a sudden storm. The stunning glare she fixed on Eric stood out from the others’.
Jutting her chin and peering down her nose at him, she said loudly, “We’re all together now. It took so long. And then YOU come along! Are you some kind of ALIEN?”
Eric turned to face the door, tried to make himself small.
“Don’t you turn your back on me. On US! You LOOK at me! You look at US! You JOIN US!”
Eric turned back to face them. He swept his gaze around the car at all the faces turned to him.
He raised his voice over the roaring train. “I’m just trying to live my life the best I can… Like everyone else.”
“NO YOU’RE NOT! You’re trying to make yourself SPECIAL!”
Eric stared at her. Despite his fear, a spark of anger was lit within him. It grew.
“It’s MY life! If I want to make it—make ME—SPECIAL then I’m going to try whether you like it or NOT!”
A younger man, a near straphanger, stepped forward from the group. “Turn on your phone, you FUCK!”
“TURN IT ON!” bellowed the woman.
Then everyone in the angry car joined in.
“TURN IT ON! TURN IT ON!”
The train slowed.
“TURN IT ON! TURN IT ON!”
They were coming for him as the train lurched and stopped. A hand had his sleeve when the door opened. He wrenched himself free and ran.
Eric’s terror and speed launched him up and out of the subway, but the streets swarmed with suddenly angry people eyeing him. He normally would have transferred to an uptown train but couldn’t bear another one. He swept through the crowded sidewalk into Times Square, intent on crossing it and heading north.
He would get to his Jeep. Get out of the city. Go back into the woods. There was peace there and time to think and wide-open space. He just needed to get there.
He soon realized that half the crowd on the sidewalk was no longer continuing on after passing him. It had fallen in with people going in his direction. The ones already going that way stared at him; even the ones up ahead looked back. The stream of people on the opposite sidewalk across the street were all going in his direction now, too, their eyes riveted on him.
Ahead, Eric saw, incongruous in August, a Santa Claus near the bleachers. The Santa Claus carried a sign that read “The ANSWER is…” Santa swung around when the growing crowd with Eric at its center swarmed the area. The other side of his sign read “on the Other Side.”
Eric wanted to avoid him but couldn’t without pushing into the crowd. Up to now, it maintained an arm’s-length distance from him. But the Santa Claus was in his path and stopped him. People crowded around.
“Ho Ho Ho!” Santa cried. He pointed at Eric’s face. “Turn your phone on!”
Eric, people jostling him, reared back his head and closed his eyes. This MUST be a nightmare! He would open his eyes to find himself in his dark bedroom. But when he opened them, he was confronted by multiple, enormous images of himself portrayed overhead on jumbotron billboards.
“TURN YOUR PHONE ON!” the crowd shouted angrily. “TURN IT ON! TURN IT ON!”
Eric braced himself. He would run. He would… He was trapped. The crowd pressed in. Hands reached, grabbed.
He tried to fend them off, but he could not. They were all over him…
And then he surrendered.
“ENOUGH!” he shouted.
He shook himself free. He pulled his cell from his pocket, held it over his head and, theatrically, pushed it “ON.”
The crowd cheered.
Santa Claus’s brow furrowed as the phone synced.
“It’s not ACCURATE!” he cried. “UPDATE YOUR PROFILE!”
“UPDATE YOUR PROFILE!” the crowd took up the chant. “UPDATE YOUR PROFILE!”
Eric’s hands shook violently as he fumbled with the phone. He could barely control his finger before it came down on the correct, final key. He pressed it and then removed his hand to uncover the phone. The cell chirruped. A drop of perspiration ran down it.
Suddenly the sun came out from behind clouds and warmed him. The sea of people around him sighed contentedly as one and quickly dispersed into individuals stepping off in all directions.
Santa Claus smiled and nodded before turning his back too.
“Welcome back, Eric! Ho Ho Ho!”
“Ho Ho Ho,” Eric said.
He dropped his cell into a trashcan and ran for the woods.
Mike Scofield is happy living in a world where some things make sense and the rest make great stories.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Escape PROFILE!”:
Author Mike Scofield’s piece is just a bit scary in its dystopian tone because we’re not that far away from such a reality—1984 comes just a little later than George Orwell predicted).
We love the author’s take on just how much we are tied (over-tied?) to our mobile devices and how little the privacy of others is respected as a result.