Frank couldn’t remember the last time he felt so happy.
He considered this as he laid in bed for the final time, with his favorite brown flannel blanket and its soft tassels that tickled his arms. As his rheumy, sunken eyes peered around at the weathered khaki walls in the bedroom of his midcentury home, he pondered this.
Frank had a full family. His wife of 40 years, Ellie, passed away 5 years earlier, but not before giving him three now-grown children, and so many grandchildren he’d lost count. Not that he cared all that much. Ellie nagged the hell out of him with her constant you-need-to-pick-up-the-girls-todays and we-need-to-see-so-and-sos and lets-go-out-this-weeks. She’d kept the house nice and clean and the kids on course at school, but if he was being honest, it was a relief to finally have some god-damned peace and quiet.
Unfortunately, by the time he got some relief, Frank found that his once-hale body had been broken down by years of football, and decades spent bent over the desk of his grocery store office, and, face it, Frank, the smoking and alcohol didn’t do you any favors.
So, his gruff demeanor became mixed with a wistful regret and a sour regard for so many people around him. “Everyone took and took from me,” Frank thought, “until this piece of shit body was all that was left. Worked 45 years in that good-for-nothing store to keep my family living in this respectable home, on its suburban tree-lined street, in the school district Ellie wanted for the kids. Look what it got me.”
Frank actually hadn’t hated his job, most of the time. He was proud that he’d started as a summer cashier at 14, working evenings after high school classes to save for his first car, a beaten rusty-yellow ‘49 Plymouth coupe that he spent as much time fixing as driving. He needed the car ( and the money, too) for the freedom to take out a girl or two. He’d met Ellie at the grocery, after all. She was stunning back then, before all the wears and cares of life got to her. He couldn’t not ask her out.
He may have even loved her once, in his way, before the weight of married life and expectations wore his patience thin. Frank never considered divorcing Ellie. It would have been far too much work to strike up a romance with someone new. “And she would never find someone as good for her as I am,” he thought. Besides, he didn’t always hate her, or the kids. He just resented them all the time. He was good at hiding his feelings, too. She always assumed he was still soft at the core, under his bristling, steely armor.
Over the years, Frank turned his position as a summer and after-school cashier into a night manager position, then assistant manager, manager, co-owner, and finally sole proprietor, following the retirement of his mentor, Sal. His wallet never felt much heavier, though, what with the house Ellie chose, the kids Ellie wanted, the vacations he acquiesced to, the interminably constant increases in mundane daily expenses. And then, the technology.
It was may as well have been the end of his career, the advent of modern computing. At first, it seemed a harmless novelty, confined to college laboratories, stock broker firms, and wealthy home offices. Then it was a grudgingly accepted efficiency increase in the checkout lanes. As it began to weave its way into the day-to-day business of running the store, Frank began to phase himself out. He hired an accountant to take care of his books. He hired an outside contractor to update and automate the checkout lanes and inventory. Grumbling the whole time, he accepted these inconveniences with the knowledge that he would not have to bear them long. When Ellie died, he was done. He sold the store, and washed his hands of it.
At home, he’d never been so tolerant. “That’s what the library is for” became a convenient excuse every time his daughters begged for a computer. He nearly fell out of his La-Z-Boy the first time his oldest asked for a cell phone. “You see that damn piece of plastic on the wall, don’t ya? What do you think that thing does?” By the time his youngest reached that age, she knew not to ask. It was Known.
An outsider might expect that a man so restrictive about new technology would be obsessive about maintaining old-fashioned communication with his friends and family, but Frank really just couldn’t be bothered to make the effort.
At a young age, his daughters were thrilled when Frank showed up for them after soccer practice, but as they grew older, each in turn learned to recognize the stench of cigarettes and whiskey that emanated from his pores on those weekday afternoons. They often preferred that he not show up at all.
Against all likely odds, Frank was yet surrounded by several people who loved him, at the end. Or, at least, people who felt conflicted enough about their years of dealing with Frank’s ingratitude and brief, inconsistent forays into something resembling graciousness, that they felt some sense of obligation to see him through to the end.
Frank forced himself to focus his eyes and take in his immediate surroundings. The blood pressure cuff and machine with its incessant beeping. The lumpy old pillow propping up his back. His oldest and youngest daughter, and the three grandchildren they’d brought between them. Their husbands and his middle child had ostensibly received the same phone call from his hospice care nurse, but were alternatively too busy at work or too far away to make it.
Frank’s daughters were politely chatting with each other in between worried glances his way and at their phones. Oldest frequently pulled her phone out of her pocket to check the time, or for some anticipated message, whatever. Youngest talked distractedly with her sister with furrowed brow focused deeply into some game or social website of the hour.
Frank’s grandchildren were all fixated on the latest Reality TV garbage transmitted via lovely 1080p LED. Frank thought the picture was nice to look at, but the set, an extravagance. Oldest felt it was a favor to replace his solidly built 1985 Radioshack tube and its wood paneling with this monstrous contraption, but what was the purpose? It got all the same shows. And who was stuck with the bill for the HD service after it had been hooked up? That’s right. Tack one on, Frank.
Frank considered these people, the slow decay of his lifestyle, the rows of canned soup and beans lining his pantry, and bitter-sweetly concluded that he was Happy. For the first time in a long time, he was Happy. He was happy to be leaving these sycophants behind. He had done his part. Stuck by his family. Provided for them. Now it was his turn to move on.
Despite himself, Frank slowly began to lose focus and the people around him swam into blots of color and then grey, as he felt himself sink down into the mattress. But instead of the creaky springs of his bed, Frank felt the softest cushion imaginable envelop him, like fine down wrapped in velvet wrapped in a cloud. He felt himself sink deeper into the cloud as the world grew darker until finally he was weightless in an endless cavern of deepest black.
Finally, Frank could really, truly, relax.
After a few moments of nothingness, Frank began to wonder if this was all there was. Right around the time Frank tried to turn his head and look around (and, subsequently, wonder if he had a head), Frank saw a sudden pulse of light stream by his right eye and rush off into the distance.
The pulse was soon joined by others, slowly at first, and then building around him more frequently from all sides as Frank began to feel a sensation of movement concurrent with the direction of the pulses. In the distance, Frank began to make out a distinct termination point of most of the pulses; a light that was growing steadily nearer.
Squinting, Frank thought he could make out other points of light all around him. Frank knew he was getting an up-close and personal look at the stars. As “his” light drew nearer, Frank was forced to return his attention to it. Now that it was closer he could see that the light was made up of countless pulses of energy, waving, oscillating, rippling, and suddenly shooting off into the distance at unfathomable speeds.
Frank felt himself drifting into the center of the convergence of energy and felt himself locked into place by some unseen force. He attempted to move his arms and found them completely unresponsive. As he began to look around more wildly and desperately, Frank thought he could make out tiny patterns in the light. Repeating 1s and 0s in indecipherable codes.
Suddenly, Frank felt blinding pain, as if his mind was split in a moment into 364,573 pieces, of varying relevance. On the subject of “Demi Lovato wardrobe malfunction 2015,” Frank was involuntarily the world’s leading expert.
“What in seven hells is this place?” Frank murmured.
A garbled voice rippled out of the distance. “Better sit back and relax, friend. It hurts worse if you resist. Best we can tell, we power the processors out there in the living world. Some kind of dark quantum mechanics thing that they don’t properly understand. Think of yourself as the Ghost in the Machine. If you’re lucky, you spend a few years at a time with a teacher, or a doctor or something. The teenagers really suck.”
Frank’s head suddenly split into 47,962 pieces. “Is is possible that Justin Bieber is the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain?” Frank had no previous knowledge of either of these people, but now knew, unequivocally, the answer was No. Panic began to rise up in Frank’s metaphorical throat.
Frank attempted to scream. Had he been alive, it would have been the sound of ultimate suffering. In a 13-year-old boy’s bedroom, the boy’s new computer suddenly popped into the Blue Screen of Death.
“Piece of shit,” the boy said.