Max fidgeted every time Dr. Warrick asked a question. The pressure of choosing one or two made him nervous, like most interactions. The exam ended. Max needed glasses but the doctor had proposed something intriguing, an Enhanced Vision and Interaction Device.
When Dr. Warrick left, Max went to the sterile blue wall to confirm his suspicions. There were cases of lenses and frames like sixteenth-century originals compared to what the optometrist had offered.
The door swung open. Max caught it before it slammed into him, then peered around.
“Sorry, excuse me,” he said in a quiet voice and slid into the examination chair.
“Have you decided?” Dr. Warrick said.
“E-Vid,” Max said, “just give me the same eye color.”
Dr. Warrick grabbed Max’s chart from a rack on the front of the door. “Your eye color is light enough to see the pattern repetitions of the E-Vid.”
“No one gets close enough to notice my eyes.”
Dr. Warrick waved his hand out the door and then slid over to Max’s right. An old man in a lab coat shuffled in and squeezed into the spot on the other side of the examination chair. A young assistant carrying a thick book followed the old man. She dropped it on Max’s lap. He leaned forward from the pressure, tried not to look at her alluring face, then shifted the book to the side of his lap.
“Dr. Ramirez and I will perform the procedure. Miss Amira will assist us,” Dr. Warrick said. “Please read the manual before the procedure,” he put a stack of papers on top of the book, “then sign these.”
Max glanced at the clock above the door. He was losing time, so he grabbed the pen from the nurse, signed and initialed where it was flagged then tossed the stack at the doctor.
“Put them in,” he said, “I need to get to work.”
Dr. Warrick smiled, then took the papers from the nurse. “It’s a complex device,” he said and signed next to the flagged spots. Dr. Ramirez shuffled over to the printer and activated it. A tablet popped out of a slot on the bottom. Dr. Ramirez fumbled with it until Amira helped him hold it.
Dr. Warrick held the stack up. “Did you read through this?”
“Yes,” Max lied.
Dr. Ramirez coughed. “We all have things to do, Jason.” He pulled out an osmotic needle and inserted a blue vial. “He can read the manual after.”
Miss Amira put a hand on Dr. Warrick’s arm. “Most of the patients say the manual is easier to read with the E-Vid. It breaks it down for them.”
Dr. Warrick nodded and grabbed the needle from Dr. Ramirez. Amira picked up the tablet. She asked Max to put his finger on the screen to retrieve his health data. The printer buzzed and blue light filled its interior until a rainbow of vial clicked into place and the interior swirled with color.
The needle pinched his arm and Max leaned back. He could feel the wave of sleep. No matter what Max put in his body or how much time he committed to the act, he awoke each day with the feeling he had missed something, never refreshed, just longing to act. Rushing to the office, even on his days off, was the only thing that erased the impression he had wasted his time laying unconscious.
Dr. Warrick reclined Max’s chair until it touched the wall. He told him to count backward from one hundred. Miss Amira was next to him. Her side rubbed against his leg. Drawing back from the touch, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, but Dr. Ramirez nudged him to keep counting before he could decipher the haptic pattern. He hoped it was not a work call. Passing seventy-five, and determined to keep going, Max was assuring himself the procedure would not take long when he fell asleep.
Cold leather and darkness greeted him when he awoke. He touched his face then yanked at the bandage wrapped around his head only to discover tape over his eyes. The tape stuck to his eyelids. He yelped and then tossed the mess at the garbage can while he rubbed his eyes.
Sky blue walls and metal cases surrounded him. The fluorescent lights in the ceiling glowed. Did they move me? The same posters were on the wall. A transparent overlay joined them that listed prices and links to purchase. Max’s heart raced. More information filled the space in front of him. The neon green in the cases flickered a few beats ahead of his heart. He blinked, and the eyes zoomed in on letters etched into the sides of the lenses like canyons. The door opened.
“You should wait for us, Max,” Dr. Warrick said as he picked up the bandage from the floor and dropped it into the can. “You may feel some discomfort, maybe a mild headache.”
“The colors are amazing,” he said.
“So I’ve been told.” Dr. Warrick rolled the stool over and sat down.
Max jumped up, yanked his coat off the hook and reached out his hand. “Thanks,” he said.
Dr. Warrick grabbed his hand. “Make sure you read the manual,” he said. He winked. “There’s a lot going on in there.”
“Absolutely,” Max said. “I can’t wait to get to work.” He looked at the clock and stopped. “Eleven hours? ” He spun around and grabbed the doctor’s arm. “The procedure took eleven hours!”
“Only an hour. But you can’t use them for at least ten after installation.” Dr. Warrick bumped into the counter as he stepped back. “You don’t want to overload your visual cortex. We kept you sedated for ten hours to avoid it.”
“You should have told me,” Max said. His office would close soon. He could not make it. His first missed day at any job.
Dr. Warrick shoved the papers into Max’s chest. “It’s in the paperwork,” he said.
Max pushed the papers back. “It’s fine,” he said, “I wanted to use them for work.”
He used his phone to request an Uber. Max thought he heard the doctor ask if he needed any help but every person around him was a panoply of discoveries, and he struggled to move through the waiting room. Social media feeds drifted above each person. A few of them had arrest records that the E-Vid displayed in bright red outlines next to their faces. Max shook his head and wondered if that was a setting he could shut off. Pictures of food and workouts were a distraction and he didn’t care what prison hauled someone away. Max had kept his distance from everyone, long before he had received fresh eyes. A thump made him spin around. Dr. Warrick shoved the manual at him while pointing at it then at Max’s eyes.
Max tucked the manual under his arm and left. He stumbled out of the office and onto a crowded street. The Uber was at the curb, so he squeezed through and jumped in. There was traffic, which the eyes kept routing around, but he ignored the display and focused on the billboards filled with the ratings of companies they advertised. Twenty minutes later, he unlocked the door to his apartment, an expensive corner on a high floor, and slid inside. Mahogany tables and pearl lamps flanked a dark green couch in the center of the room. A window panel stretched across the corner and from floor to ceiling.
He froze when he saw the New York City Skyline. People in their homes were labeled, highlighted and categorized as he watched. Abandoned apartments had lists of court cases or interested buyers. Every building had a floating notation. ‘Constructed in 1924’ for one, ‘2024’ for another. ‘Retrofitted 2060, renovations planned for 2095’. He sunk into the couch and stared at the skyline for several minutes.
Max dragged the manual onto his lap and flipped through it. The multicolored lines were different thicknesses that surrounded blocks of text. A section outlined in bright red caught his eye. At the top, in bold letters, the section was labeled ‘Priority Settings for the Enhanced Vision and Interaction Device.’ He read the brief description underneath. The E-Vid would filter out the visual noise and emphasize what the user thought was important.
He thumbed through the section, but didn’t bother to read beyond the section title and a few sentences. Max preferred to learn a new toy through practice instead. The instructions for setting priorities were at the end. It auto-fills the priority list after a brain scan, he thought, but it takes ten hours. He looked over at the time glowing dimly at the center of the window panel. Just enough to finish the scan and get to work for the six am shift. This was the only work day he had missed since his first job when he was seven years old. Max was never late, always early, and did his job without being asked or supervised. He had often volunteered to work more, for free most of the time, because he had learned as a child that there was no one else to spend time with. He might as well work. Work was life.
Max set the E-Vid for auto-priority. When the eyes beeped twice, he pushed the manual off his lap and went into the bedroom. A king-sized bed draped in gold and red towered over small nightstands. A cherry wood dresser stood opposite the bed in front of a window wall that turned opaque when he entered. He stripped off his clothes and jumped into the bed. He lay there, fantasizing about the doors the E-Vid would open, and fell asleep.
For Max, work made life fly by. He relished the concentration it required. His company worked with mines to guarantee raw materials for some clients, designed ads for election campaigns for others while the lawyers of both groups fought their rivals in the courts. Everything Max did required focus and attention to detail. Living alone, his only family on the other side of the country, he let work cocoon him in reassuring success. Nothing got in his way, no matter his age; health was a part of success and he had reached the middle of life vibrant and fit.
The determination had paid off. His apartment, his car, and everything he owned were a confirmation of his hard work. His office and home were filled with as many confirmations as he could afford. The E-Vid was a silent reminder since he had yet to tell anyone about it. Not that anyone talked to him beyond the occasional greeting or empty invitation. There had been fewer of them in the last weeks.
He had been in his new position for four months when he had the E-Vid installed. That was two months ago. He leaned back in his chair as he drummed his finger on the mahogany desk, a rare luxury in the reusable world he had grown up in. It was another reminder of his achievements. The last two months with the E-Vid had been a whirlwind of success. He had finished everything on his schedule and most of his coworkers’ assignments by the Thursday of each week since the installation. His bosses had congratulated him while others had seethed.
There was a knock on the door, and the knob shook. It was locked. A muffled voice spoke through the door, but Max could not understand it. He pressed a button on the side of his desk and deactivated the bolt in the door.
It flew open and a tall man strode through. He spun around as he looked at the opaque window walls. “Max,” he said, “you need sunlight.”
“I’m fine like this, Chuck. I like the lights.”
Chuck smirked and glanced at fluorescent lights in the ceiling. He walked over to the wall and switched off the opacity. Yellow and orange light exploded into the room. A heavy haze surrounded the sun above the horizon. Max shielded his eyes, not from the light, but from the burst of information in the view. He wondered why the auto-priorities still revealed tidbits of the city’s history. He reached for the opacity controls. Chuck swatted his hand away as he sat down on Max’s desk. The wood creaked.
Chuck looked at Max, then got up. “Sorry,” he said.
That’s expensive. “It’s fine,” he said, “is there a reason you’re here?”
Chuck fiddled with a pen on Max’s desk. “We missed you at the birthday party yesterday.”
There haven’t been any. “Where was it?”
“In the break room, where they always are.” Chuck sat down in one of the hardwood chairs in front of the desk. Angled, and low to the ground, the chairs forced anyone who sat in them to look up at the person on the other side of the desk. The wood groaned from Chuck’s bulk. Max grimaced and Chuck leaned forward to put more weight on his legs and less on the chair.
“No one told me,” Max said.
“Jake said he invited you.” Chuck pulled out a birthday card and tossed it at Max. “You signed the card but didn’t even look at him.”
Max examined the card. His signature was at the bottom, wedged next to his number and email. Max smirked.
“It’s not funny,” Chuck said, “Sheila’s upset. You treated here like some client you just met.”
Max tried to remember when he had signed the card. He did not remember seeing Jake at any point last week. “I’ve been busy,” he said.
“Making us all look bad.” Chuck got up. “You need to come to the next party. For morale, Max.”
You’re not my boss. “When is it?”
Chuck shook his head as he walked to the door. “Jake told you.”
“I haven’t seen him.”
Chuck stopped in the doorway and spun around. He squinted at Max. “It’s at six today.” The door banged against the frame when he closed it.
Max drummed his fingers on his desk and slammed the opacity controls. The room returned to the sterile white from the overhead lights. The skyline in the daytime was more bearable. It still gave him a headache, but there were not as many people at home. The social media feeds had disappeared the day after he set the auto-priorities, but he could still see people in their homes and the historical notations in his vision remained plastered behind for-sale signs. They were all minor annoyances. His work was the only important part of his life and the E-Vid had made him better at it.
Another knock on the door made him sit up. “Come in,” he said as he unlocked it. Max rearranged the papers on his desk, put the next assignment at the top, and then opened the invoices on his computer to send out.
The door flew open and crashed into the window wall. His supervisor marched inside.
“Hello, Mr. Walters,” Max said. He got up and strode across the room to shake Mr. Walters’s hand.
“You missed the client meeting,” Mr. Walters said.
Max backed up after they shook hands. “What meeting?” he said.
“It was in the email. Your level requires face-to-face with potential buyers and long-standing clients.” Mr. Walters had been with the company for forty years before Max had joined. They had seen plenty of people rise and fall since the day Max had started.
Max rubbed the side of his neck and glanced at his computer screen. “When was it sent?”
“I told them to come back. You will meet with them now.” Mr. Walters spun around and stepped into the doorway. “Gather your presentation and get to conference room A.” He slammed the door.
Max dropped into his chair, flung open the drawers, and then dug out all of his new accounts. He opened his emails to search for recent meetings. A blurry one appeared on the screen. Max squinted at it, then rubbed his face. What’s wrong? he thought as he closed his eyes. The email was legible when he opened them. He spotted the name and account number. An existing client desired more coverage and to expand into foreign markets. He scooped up folders from the drawers, wrote out a quick presentation, then ran out of the room.
Conference room A was down the hall. He stopped in the doorway of a wide room with a dark black table and leather chairs. The room was empty. He was alone.
He sat down at the desk and laid out his materials. Planning is important, but he didn’t have time. He wondered why he didn’t see the email the first time. The door banged against a cabinet. There was a muffled sound. Max felt a rush of air as though someone slid into a chair next to him. But there was no one. The room was empty. Max’s heart pounded. He twisted around, searching the room. He bent over to stare under the table. There was no one.
Something tapped his shoulder. “Max,” a face next to him said, a blurry face that drifted together in bits. Ears at first, then the cheeks. A mouth materialized below two eyes that slid together until a complete face was next to him. It was Jake.
Max clenched his jaw. “Let me know when the clients get here.”
Jake nudged him. “They’re sitting across from you,” he whispered.
Max leaned back and rubbed his temples. He grabbed the account booklet and tossed it across the table. A fuzzy shape covered the booklet and blocked the endless string of enhanced information that poured out of everything he looked at. The shape lifted the booklet. A body coalesced within the shape, then a face. Hands pulled themselves together around the booklet. Dark skin appeared next. That’s Dave.
“Can we start?” Dave said as he pushed the booklet across the table.
Max could see all of him. But Dave was not alone. Other blurred out figures flickered into existence next to him as Max watched. Faces formed on each. He tried to remember them. Max slapped the side of his head, then banged his fists against it. He picked up the booklet and swiped it at his face. Is the E-Vid broken?
“Are you all right?” Jacinda asked. She was sitting next to Dave.
“Yes. I’m fine.” Max grabbed the files and a nanoSD card and went to the projector wall. It activated and the room darkened.
The bodies remained people, their faces filled with confusion.
“Your company is a marvel,” Max began, “founded over 100 years ago and still relevant today.”
Dave smiled and whispered to Jacinda.
“The founder, and her family, laid the foundation for a truly efficient and fair company,” he continued.
An hour later, Max had finishing wowing them with his grasp of their situation. They had left with a bigger account from his company. Mr. Walters congratulated Max and left the conference room.
Max strode down the hallway to his office. Mr. Walters was waiting. He stepped inside and shut the door.
“Would you like a drink?” Max said. He shuffled over to the small bar opposite the door.
“Sure,” Mr. Walters said, “whiskey.” He switched off the opacity of the window walls. Bright lights from the buildings punctured the black sky. Everyone was home.
Max unlocked the bottom drawer of the bar and shuffled through the varieties. He pulled out an unopened bottle of twenty-five-year-old malt that was perfect for celebrations. When he was done pouring, he walked back to his desk and handed a glass to Mr. Walters. He sat down behind the desk.
Mr. Walters was just standing there. Max rubbed his eyes and wondered why he was not moving. When he opened his eyes, Mr. Walters was patting Max on the shoulder.
“Are you all right?” Mr. Walters said.
“What? I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“I was asking you why you missed all the parties these last two months,” Mr. Walters said as he leaned on the edge of the desk, “but you were just staring at me like I wasn’t speaking.”
You weren’t. “I was thinking about the bigger account.”
“It’s rude, Max. You missed birthdays and retirements.”
“That’s not funny, Max.” Mr. Walters got up and put his glass on the desk without a coaster. “You signed most of the cards.”
Max remembered what Chuck had told him. How he could forget the cards and the parties? He hated them, but he knew they were an important part of business culture.
Max shook his head. “I’ve been working a lot.”
“Speaking of that.” Mr. Walters lifted the glass, emptied it, then put it back on the bar. “You’ve been ignoring client meetings.”
Max turned away from Mr. Walters, then spun back around when he spotted the skyline. He searched the room for a spot without enhanced interaction, a spot to think.
He glanced at his computer. “Which meetings?”
“I know you don’t like working with people. The other meetings were small, and I overlooked them, but we can’t afford another near-miss like today.” Mr. Walters opened the door. “Just respond to all the clients. It doesn’t have to be in person every time. Email is fine. Just don’t ignore them.” He left.
Max collapsed into his chair. He couldn’t see the clients in the conference room. He couldn’t hear them either. What’s wrong? he wondered. Max clamped his hand over his eyes and pressed down. Mr. Walters was wrong. The parties had stopped; he had not been ignoring them. He knew they were important, no matter how anxious they made him. They were a part of his success. And the client meetings; he could not have missed them too. But the events of the conference room scared him. He wondered what the clients had thought about him. He had been staring at them like a newborn baby that could only see blurs and colors. They had been talking to him, but he had just looked around like there was no one in the room, like he had had time to spare.
Max removed his hand from his eyes and put his head on the desk. He thought about the last two months. His work output had tripled, but he had also stayed in the office more. In the beginning, there had been constant interruptions, but he could not remember any interruptions after the third week. No one had come to interrupt him after that. Max pushed the thoughts aside. Distractions and success did not mix. He returned to his work and finished the day’s assignments.
Back in his apartment, he settled into the couch. The vibrancy of color had tired him out after the first week with the E-Vid along with the thousands of small nicks and scratches covering the shiny floor. His bed looked old again even though he had just bought a new one last week. He pulled the manual onto his lap and opened it to the priorities section.
“Not broken,” Max said a few minutes later.
Auto-priorities performed a brain scan every twenty four hours. He should have realized what that meant. Only what he believed was important, only those things he desired to notice, would be included in the automatically populated priorities list. He had assumed the office had been emptier, that fewer people had needed to come in. But no. He did not think they were important, and now he struggled to see or hear them at all.
The manual had plenty to say on that subject. Sensory reassignment, he thought. The manual’s term for when the natural senses followed the artificial ones. His ears had chosen to stop hearing what his eyes had ignored. He remembered the streets of New York were always jammed with crowds marching and running, walking and sightseeing. He did not think they were important, believed them to be distractions, so they had disappeared. The confirmation was right there in black and red in the manual.
Chuck and Mr. Walters were right. He had missed important client meetings and almost had lost a few clients. The manual had warned him, but he had ignored it, like the many people in his life he had brushed aside. His phone beeped. The sound echoed in the empty apartment, a notification for a sale at his favorite suit shop.
No one ever talked to him outside of work, that was nothing new. The only notifications were for work and more stuff to buy. He had been alone since he left his family on the west coast to work in the city, where he could thrive. But now that was in jeopardy.
The auto-priorities could not be deactivated once engaged. The constant barrage of information would never abate because he loved information, loved the opportunities it provided and the satisfaction of knowing more than someone else. But he did not desire information, despite his love. He longed to see people, to speak with them, not at them. After all those years of feeling alone, his inborn desires had made him alone.
There was only one option, a manual priority list, buried in the instructions at the bottom of a page with ‘Not Permanent’ in big, bold letters. Every night since, Max had entered items on the list. At first, he had put names. But then he had discovered it was not enough one day during a surprise party when only one person had jumped out at him. His own birthday, and he did not think anyone there was important.
Three months with the same routine added to his schedule, every night a list more specific than the night before had been filled out. They did not last; that was the worst part. The manual said the list would override the automatic settings for ten hours. Sometimes it had stopped as soon as he had left his apartment, such was the strength of his social anxiety and ambivalence. It had driven him to ignore everything that had bothered him, everything that had prevented success. The notations surrounding buildings and items for purchase were a constant companion, no matter what entries filled his list.
He started seeing a therapist after the first month with the manual list. Once a week they would talk about his past and his work. She did not know he had the E-Vid. Their sessions had focused on enhancing his awareness of connections. To ease his social anxiety, she had taught him meditations and breathing techniques. Sometimes their sessions would turn to how he interacted with people and she would say they needed to work on enhanced interaction. He would laugh and then ignore her questions about what had amused him.
Work had been marvelous; the E-Vid had helped more than it had hurt. But the lists had been tiresome. He could not figure out the right entries. There was always a missed appointment from an invisible email or a forgotten hello to someone in his way. He had hired a personal assistant and had fired him the next week when the young man asked why he had wanted his schedule recited to him before bed.
Every night, Max would lay in bed and practice the meditation the therapist had taught him to calm his anxiety. One night while meditating after setting the list, he had recounted the names of the people around him to will himself to remember their reactions. Max had hoped that connecting emotions and body language with people would make them important again. They’re important, they’re people, he would remind himself. But that had only made everything worse. He could see their bodies but not their faces and had gone back to regular meditation that night.
People made friends and lost lovers. Their reactions defined them and helped to cement memories. Max wanted more than observations of reactions. He wondered about his own life. Old thoughts of worthlessness surfaced, tired feelings etched on his heart from semesters in college spent ostracized and mocked. Lack of a love life for someone devoted to work was not unusual, he had assumed it would find him. It felt out of reach now. He left work that day feeling worse than ever.
Outside his office building, he waited for a town car that was taking too long. He tapped his foot on the street, unsure of what to do. Something brushed his shoulder. Max spun around. A woman with long auburn hair had tapped him.
She was the same age as him, just as fit, but still had the shine of youth. A cool breeze lifted her hair, she brushed it off her face. “E-Vid?” she said
She backed up a bit then leaned forward. “I can see the pattern repetitions in your iris.” She put her briefcase down on the sidewalk and stuck out her hand. “Janine,” she said, “I’ve got them too.”
Janine’s eyes were dark brown and looked natural. She stood in front of him with squared shoulders and waited for him to respond.
“Oh,” he stammered, “I…I haven’t told anyone.” He fiddled with his pockets and tried not to look at her.
“I told everyone. I was so proud.”
Blurs and groups of people on the streets rushed past in their usual ignorance.
Max leaned forward. “How did people react?” he whispered.
She smiled then squeezed his shoulder. “Let’s find somewhere to talk,” she waved down a taxi that sent pigeons flying when it stopped. He hated pigeons.
“My place?” he blurted out before she opened the door.
“Let’s order something to eat,” she said and got in. Max joined her, closed the door, and told the driver his address.
The next few hours were different from anything Max had experienced. They talked. Not just about the E-Vid. Everything had come up. Shared experiences brought comfort and made it easier to talk, so Max had moved closer to her as the hours flew by, but would back up whenever they had touched. He did not want to risk it.
She could not figure out the E-Vid at first either and had tried to return it. Neither of them had realized the true meaning of the no refund policy. Their natural eyes were gone. Unlike Max, she had read the manual before the procedure, including the clinical trials in the back. She had even spoken to other patients and found fascinating stories from people who had used the auto-priorities, like one woman who had stopped a homicide and another who had prevented a forest fire.
“My priorities surprised me,” she said as she tipped back the glass.
Red’s her favorite. He leaned forward to squeeze her shoulder. They were close on the couch, but Max wanted to be closer.
“I couldn’t see my ex-husband,” she continued, “or my best friend. Not that I hated either of them.” She edged away from Max to fill up her glass, then squeezed in next to him. She drank it. “My kids never vanished.”
Max was afraid to admit the severity of his troubles. He downplayed the struggle of the last five months. Their conversation returned to lighter topics. Max liked her sense of humor, something he had forgotten about while at work. No one had ever laughed at his jokes, so he had stopped bothering to laugh at others.
Janine was different. She worked without rest, like him, but her life seemed more complete. She was well-informed and their discussions drifted from humor to serious matters of life. The economy, politics, and science were her favorites.
Max wanted to change the E-Vid. But her advice was something he had heard before. The same advice from all the counselors and therapists from his childhood. The same advice psychologists and nurses in the mental health wards had given him.
“Be present,” she said, “change yourself.” She slid over to him and leaned her head on his shoulder and looked up. They laughed.
Tiny moments peppered the night. A glance held a little too long would turn into a lingering stare and end with a smile. A squeeze would follow a brushed hand and another smile. She liked him; the signs were there, but Max didn’t know what to do. She was the first person he had let into his apartment. Their interactions sizzled with electricity and a feeling of intensity washed over Max whenever they locked eyes.
Janine left late. Max filled out his list and went to bed. The next morning, he rushed out the door. He could not stop thinking about her on his way to work. While he sat there filling out reports and making calls, he searched for her on Facebook then remembered she had deactivated it. He texted her to meet later, but she was out of town for the next week.
Her words stayed with him. They echoed the advice his therapist had given him so he spent the next week repeating the small talk people exchanged and the tidbits of their personal lives shared in idle work conversation. He wanted to be present in the moment, to feel the presence of others and how their interactions affected everything he set out to do. He needed to recognize the innocuous connections between people, the subtle parts of conversations that revealed motivations or the glimmer in an eye that laid bare a desire. These were the keys to enhanced interaction. The phrase his therapist had employed, painfully similar to the name of his new eyes, had rung in his ears every day since he had spoken with Janine. It had been a week.
Max walked into the first meeting of the day tired, but prepared. He had fallen asleep late and woken up early, anxious about Janine’s return. He stopped in the doorway. Everyone was looking at him. They were all there, even a few strangers he had never met, in high definition with no blurry faces or ominous shapes.
He pushed forward and sat down. Mr. Walters shuffled in behind him and plopped into a chair.
Max went to the front of the room. He turned on the projector, inserted the nanoSD and spun around. Make eye contact, he remembered. The clients and their lawyers waited for Max to start. Chuck was next to someone new, an older gentlemen with a brightly colored suit and matching tie. The man fidgeted in his seat.
“Triple sales revenue in two years,” he said, “that’s what I can promise you.” He pressed a button on the projector and the first slide appeared. Another press and data tables scrolled in from the right and a block of text from the left. Max kept his back to the projector. “Your current sales revenue is $50 million.” He studied the people around the table, a few smiled, others crossed their arms. “That’s just the domestic market.”
“Go international? That’s your big proposal?” the man in the flamboyant suit said.
“Not exactly,” Max said. He braced against the projector and tried to absorb the man’s reaction, tried to commit it to memory. He needed to enhance his perception without the E-Vid. He clicked the button and the next slide appeared. “Global expansion is down the line. You need to saturate the domestic market first.” The new slide filled with geographical data. “Half the country doesn’t know who you are.”
The young man smiled. Chuck nodded for Max to continue. The meeting lasted over an hour. It ended when the young man jumped up to introduce himself as Jim Vernick, the secretive CEO of Toolula Tech. He wanted to work with Max’s firm. The clients and their lawyers filed out of the room.
Mr. Walters sat down next to Max. “Excellent work,” he said, “they were on the fence at first but you know your stuff.”
Max wondered why he could see their faces. He had never met Vernick before, and the name was not in his client file. Mr. Walters patted him on the shoulder.
“Thank you, sir.” Max extended a hand and Mr. Walters shook it.
“Do you want to come to lunch? Chuck and I want to try the steakhouse on the corner. My treat.”
Birthday parties, retirements, and general office celebrations were all he had been invited to over the last five months. They helped cement morale. Going to lunch with your boss was different, he had never been invited while at this company. He was too distant.
“Yes, sir, I’d love to.” Max got up and followed Mr. Walters out of the room. Chuck joined them at the elevator and they rode it to the lobby.
Noise struck him when he stepped onto the street. Laughter and arguments ebbed in the rhythm of a thousand conversations. Max drank in the commotion, let it wash over him as they pushed through the crowds to reach the steakhouse. It was not noise. It was interaction. He pushed his mind to keep track of what he heard. He passed a mother scolding her child for not finishing homework, and a young man crying because his father was sick.
“Important,” he whispered and they stepped into the crowded steakhouse.
“What was that?” Chuck said.
“Nothing,” he said.
The steakhouse was packed with strangers. But he could see all of them. No notations danced above their heads or next to jewelry. He recited the words of a group arguing over who should pay, then nodded when Mr. Walters spoke. A dark whiskey was put in front of him a minute later. Pay attention, he thought.
“You’re an asset, Max,” Mr. Walters said. He raised his glass.
“Makes us all look bad,” Chuck said as he tossed back his glass.
Max felt as bad. He had an unfair advantage, despite its effects on his personal life and psyche. He raised his glass, clinked it against Mr. Walters’s, then drank the bittersweet liquor.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” he said.
Max explained why he was an asset. Chuck was mad at first but calmed down when Mr. Walters reminded him of his own promotion at Max’s urging. When they asked about his absence at all the events, he shrugged it off as simple mistakes; he dared not tell them the real reason.
Mr. Walters congratulated him again on being an asset. The rest of the lunch was fantastic. Max had made jokes; they would laugh. He grew annoyed at the rude guests behind him but did not wish them away or long for a city where he was the only resident. He excused himself and went to the bathroom. Alone in the stall, he tapped his temple to summon the list. It was blank.
Max collapsed against the stall. He had forgotten to set the list. The door to the bathroom crashed against the wall and brown loafers with white shoelaces shuffled across the floor to the stall next to him. He laughed. He had never bothered to watch shoes, especially not in the bathroom. He assumed the empty list was a mistake and returned to the table. The jokes and laughter resumed.
The E-Vid fascinated Chuck but Mr. Walters kept the conversation light and away from work. They returned to the office an hour later.
“Go home, Max,” Mr. Walters said.
“The day’s not over.” Max stepped past him to go to his office.
Mr. Walters grabbed Max’s arm. “In the last five months, you’ve worked enough to retire ten years earlier than the rest of us. But I can see it has weighed you down. Take the day, get some rest. The E-Vid will still be there to help us tomorrow.”
Max grabbed his coat and left. He walked into his apartment twenty minutes later, collapsed on the couch, and tapped his temple to open the list menu. He decided to set it the way he had planned the night before. Today was a fluke, he thought as he finished entering the list. The notations on the skyline outside his window cascaded from the buildings. His phone pinged and he yanked it out of his pocket. It was Janine and she was on her way to his apartment.
She strolled through the door half an hour later, her bright red shoes a smooth finish compared to the canyons in the floor, the thousand nicks that never disappeared. Her navy blue suit with orange stripes glistened in the light from his pearl lamps. Max coughed when he read the notation next to her tie. It cost four thousand dollars.
Janine hugged him and slid down onto the couch. “Sorry for being out of touch. How’s your week been?”
Max smiled. It was good to hear her voice again, a sweet and steady voice filled with confidence that had run through his mind on an endless loop.
“Great,” he said.
She mentioned the next election and off they went on an exploration of high concepts and cherished notions. They had their differences, a new dimension to her outside the idea he had formed in his head, but there was common ground.
They ordered dinner and ate together, laughing and joking through the hours. Max studied each of her movements. He wanted to be present in their conversation, present in her presence. He used the techniques the therapist had taught him too enhance his interaction with her. But there was something missing. He had not been honest with her and decided to tell her about the real struggle with the E-Vid.
“Must’ve been terrifying. I’m sorry you went through that,” she said when he had finished. She ran her fingers through his hair. “I found it helps to try to understand why people do things.”
He nodded. She slid closer and put her arm around him. They locked eyes. Max glanced to the side. The thousand canyons in the floor were gone and out the window was just a skyline. Janine kissed him and he returned her sudden show of affection. They embraced and rolled around on the couch to make love. She left a few hours later.
Max stared at the door after she closed it and checked the list. It was grayed out, no longer in effect. He wondered about earlier in the day. The notations were missing. This was the first day he had spent without a list. He glanced at the time, then he climbed into bed and decided to risk another day with his own priorities.
The next day, he reclined in his office chair to gaze out the window. Most of the notations were gone. The ones that remained showed him people’s birthdays, their favorite food, or where they escaped the monotony of work. The door swung open and an intern marched in with the daily reports.
“Hello,” Max said.
The intern smiled and brushed the hair from her face. “Melanie,” she said then extended a hand.
Max had never met her before, yet notations about her likes and dislikes filled the space around her like an aura. Melanie handed max the daily reports and left. He examined them for the mistakes the E-Vid always highlighted. They were still there. But something new had joined them. Phrases like ‘up all night arguing’ or ‘has four kids’ had replaced the names and salaries of the people who had committed the mistakes. He could see people and what they cared about. Their struggles mattered.
He called Janine. “It worked,” he said, “no more lists.”
“I knew you could do it,” she said.
“I needed to be present, Janine,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere together.”
“This weekend. It’s only Tuesday.”
Max smiled. “Yes, only Tuesday.”