Finn and Jack had walked the streets in silence for some time with no sign of haunting or possession. It was earlier than Finn customarily awoke and, while exhausted, he was begrudgingly pleased to watch the rest of the world wake up around him. Dog walkers were out in full force, and Finn had to contain squeals of boyish joy whenever an eager puppy wagged its tail so hard its entire body danced in unison. Delivery riders hummed by on their bikes, hurling newspapers into lawns. They passed by more joggers than he had ever seen in his life, the soft glow of their devices beaming their distance, heart rate, and current pace directly into their eyes. He admired their ambition as he ritually packed a new pack of cigarettes, three taps on one side, three on the other. He opened the pack, pulled one out, twirled it in his fingers before handing it to Jack, and then procured one for himself. They stopped momentarily to light them.
“Do you know where you’re going?” he asked Jack, exhaling a massive plume of smoke that lingered in the heavy air.
Jack scoffed, “No, no I do not know where I’m going. You’re seeing what I’m seeing, right? There’s nothing there. Nothing but people, ordinary people doing ordinary things.”
“Then how did you expect--”
“I don’t know!” Jack shouted, louder than he had intended. He closed his eyes and then continued, softer, “I have no idea what I’m doing. Maybe it was the drinks, the hangover, the weeks on end of shitty sleep I’ve been getting because spending most of your day under the oppressive canopy of bright lights while other bright lights bore into your brain is bad for your mental health.” He paused and then looked away and up toward the horizon, the seemingly endless sidewalk sprawled out before them. “I just thought that maybe it was real. Maybe something, anything would happen and you would see it and you’d believe me.”
Finn glared at the sidewalk.
Jack continued, “I don’t know, man. When it happened, when I first woke up, I was so sure. But now,” he sighed and kicked a rock into the road. “But now, I feel like I’m just waking up from a bad dream. I mean, who am I kidding? This obviously makes no sense whatsoever. Let’s turn around and go back.”
Finn inhaled deeply and flicked his cigarette, the orange glow slicing the air as it arced toward the ground. “No man, it’s cool. I didn’t mean it like that. But, like, what did you actually expect your phone to do?”
Jack threw his arms into the air, “I don’t know man I just expected it to act up somehow.”
The cacophonic blast shook the inner core of Finn’s brain. A heavy beat thudded in his head while words were being growled in harsh low frequency. He instinctively covered his ears to no avail. Jack’s device pumped the music direct and loud.
“You’re right!” Finn exclaimed. “There is no way that your phone is haunted. No ghost would live in that damn thing if it had to listen to this shitty music all the time.”
Jack didn’t respond. His eyes grew wide and stared at Finn. He was mouthing words but Finn couldn’t hear him over the trash compactor being drilled into his ears.
“Volume down!” Finn yelled. The music subsided.
“Did you hear that!?” Jack squealed. “I mean, come on!”
“Yes of course I heard that!” Finn shot back. “Do you have permanent hearing damage listening to your garbage music that loudly?”
“First of all,” Jack replied calmly, “that is not garbage. You need to get out there and listen to some new stuff.”
“Secondly, you know that’s not how these work anymore. They totally bypass the ears by--”
“I know! I know!” Finn interrupted, waving his hands in front of his face. “Figure of speech, is all.”
“Thirdly,” Jack said, completely ignoring Finn. “did you not hear those lyrics? The words? That is some A-Grade creepy stuff. Oh man, I was totally right. This thing is ridiculously possessed!”
Finn scowled and retorted, “You are way too excited about that prospect. And, yes, I could hear it just fine; just couldn’t understand a damn word of it. Pretty sure you’re reaching here. What was the name of the song?”
Jack glanced at his phone and then looked up sheepishly. “Act Up.”
“And what did you just say before the song began to play?” Finn asked.
Jack looked at his feet, “That my phone would act up somehow?”
“So,” Finn continued, “isn’t it more likely that rather than your phone being possessed by an evil spirit--”
“Evil!?” Jack blurted.
“...isn’t it more likely that your voice controls are fucked up?”
“Listen, Jack. How long have we been friends? Forever, right? I wouldn’t tell you something I didn’t believe, something I didn’t think was right. Instead of chasing this thing, how about you just get a new damn phone and get some goddamn rest.”
Finn unplugged and walked away, leaving Jack clutching his phone to his chest, beams of light emanating around him. Jack let him go without argument. He knew how ridiculous he sounded, how impossible it would to believe what he now believed. Jack had always been better with technology than Finn. Finn took it all for granted. He never bothered to figure out how things worked, the upper limit of their control, the methodology behind their convenience. And, at the very least, with how uncomfortable Finn had been about plugging into his device in the first place, Jack knew he bought into the common misconceptions and myths about the much stigmatized practice. Willful ignorance, Jack surmised.
The song may have been a coincidence, the title a repeat of what he said by happenstance, but it shouldn’t have stopped playing when Finn asked it too. Voice control was never relinquished to a guest user without express consent of the original and Jack never uttered the command. A shiver ran down Jack’s spine.
He held his phone firmly.
“Saturation: 80%,” he called out.
The phone replied, monotone and calm, “HoloTec would like to remind you that active users should not increase saturation beyond 50%. Active users should take caution to be aware of their surroundings. Would you like to continue?”
“Yes,” Jack responded without hesitation.
The world collapsed red and orange. He stepped forward. He stepped backward. The color vibrated in his vision, brighter here and darker there. He turned around until the shades hummed in unison with his heart, and he began to walk with nothing to guide him but the flashing lights and tug in his chest.
He imagined himself one of those, the glow of his device always mere inches from his eyes as he mumbled to himself up and down the street, stopping and turning and moving forward and then back until he felt that yes, yes, this is the right direction. He had no time for pleasantries. No excuse me’s or pardon me’s to weigh him down.
By the time the sun was setting, the houses were beginning to get sparse, but larger, their angles more precise. The yards wore a deeper green and were shorn at the ground in exact uniformity. Jack had never liked the outer rings and only traveled there when necessary, to visit family or long distant friends attempting to rekindle a friendship every five years or so. It was always awkward. He pushed beyond these memories and trudged onward until the sidewalks ended.
Out here, he knew he was going to attract attention. He paused. His stomach growled as he noticed for the first time that he had been walking all day and had forgotten to eat.
“Saturation: 30%,” he whispered.
Blue and yellow shades of dusk filled his vision. He rubbed his eyes and blinked. He surveyed his surroundings, his heart beating rapidly. Behind dark curtains and blinds, dim lights glowed, casting silhouettes of families sitting down to eat, watching late night programs, studying.
Jack pushed forward. He was getting close. Even at 30%, he could sense directly where his phone was calling him. Having been connected for so long, he could feel it in his entire body. A pulling, a tug, like he was hooked and being reeled in. Hesitation faded as excitement washed over him, compelling his feet to rise and fall, pull and push forward forward forward until suddenly, there it was.
The house was dark, nestled into a hill, nothing but the garage oozing out of its side, supporting the main structure on its back. Jack froze mid-stride.
The world faded until reality bled into existence. Electricity coursed through the wires overhead, dripping a thick buzzing oscillation that dug into his skin.
When he had dreamt it, everything had been so unfamiliar, but there they all were. All the unrecognizable houses, trees, cars, lampposts and wires, laid out exactly as he had imagined, every detail an exact replication of his subconscious play.
Except one thing. Whereas the house had been empty when he occupied it, a lone shadow stood at the window, looking out onto the street, directly at where Jack stood.
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)