Screen Time By Caroline Griego

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In the event of a playground altercation, Mr. and Mrs. Grace have told their seven-year-old son to abide by the following rule: Hit Back, Not First. A sharp little piece of parallel structure, Mrs. Grace thinks. Four words, four syllables; a neat arrangement of assertive consonants communicating an honourable principle. Hit Back, Not First. Perfect. Listening to her husband say the words now to Freddie’s classroom teacher, Mrs. Grace envisions them, as she always does, in bold, black letters against background that is glossy and white. She likes the way her husband pauses between the Back and the Not for half a beat longer than is natural so that, in the brief silence, his listener may feel the full solemn weight of the lesson. He’s still slightly out of breath. Both the Graces are, each having frantically dashed from different PR Consultancy offices to their son’s classroom, where they now perch—he in a custom fitted suit of gun metal grey, she in a navy wrap dress of organic cotton—upon brightly coloured miniature chairs that struggle to contain their adultness.

Mr. Grace is saying: Never hit anyone who hasn’t hit you.

Mrs. Grace adds: Unless you’re defending someone else.

Her husband quickly agrees: Yes, of course. We’ve always told Freddie to stand up for others. Like I said, Hit Back

He leans forward.

Not First.

And not just in school, Mrs. Grace insists, raising a forceful finger for every team-sport-playing, Boy-Scouting, character-building opportunity they’ve afforded their only child. Because, she says, they, the Graces, are very proactive, committed parents; they take courses, buy books, they watch Ted Talks, speaking of which, Mrs. Grace wonders if the teacher has seen that one that went viral a few months back, Dr. Ben Flight: Parenting the Digital Native? Because his most recent book, MultiPlatform Parenting™, along with the accompanying podcast series, have been just so, so important to the Grace’s parenting philosophy, and Mrs. Grace highly recommends the teacher check it out when she has a spare moment.

As his wife talks, Mr. Grace plunges further into the private turmoil he’s been enduring since the meeting began.

He’d intended to turn it off. He’d wanted to. During the walk from car to school. But the steady, toneless buzz in his trouser pocket tells him that, somehow, this didn’t happen. And to consult it now, to give in to the seductive vibrations, would give to the world—represented here by his son’s teacher—an image of Parental Disengagement. And Mr. Grace is not Disengaged. He loves his son. His boy, Freddie. So he grips the short metal legs of his chair, anchoring himself against the allure of unknown things calling to him.

The sudden, soft weight of his wife’s hand on his arm secures him—albeit temporarily—to the world of the classroom. He squeezes her hand, leans into her touchable mass, and hears her say,

… so believe us, we know he’s no saint, don’t we?

Oh, yes! he replies, matching her delivery with his own wry chuckle, We do know that!

Mrs. Grace, buoyed by the reassuring pressure of her husband’s hand, looks at the teacher with a steady smile. See, teacher-woman? See? We’re Good Parents: Rigorously Well-Informed Parents, Engaged, Thoughtful Parents. Our son is Well-Parented. He is A Good-Boy.

The teacher’s desk is a chaos of glue pots and tubs of lid-less markers, and stacks of paper that rain glittery showers at the slightest nudge. She sits behind it, nodding her serious attention to the Grace’s words while simultaneously cleaning her glasses with the edge of her yellow knitted sweater. Now she returns Mrs. Grace’s gaze from behind these streak-free lenses, her irises swollen, milky blurs. Mrs. Grace’s tiny chair tilts beneath her; one of the legs, it seems, is slightly shorter than the others.

The teacher sighs and says,

I’m sorry, but Freddy’s behaviour today was violent, cruel and entirely unprovoked.

They look at each other then, the Graces. A darting, eyes-only status-check to confirm that yes, they’d both just heard the same series of disjointed noises.

Sorry… I’m sorry, Mrs. Grace says, but really, I find it difficult to believe—

Very difficult, her husband snorts.

—that Freddie—

Our Freddie!

Could ever, ever…

She lets the idea dangle then disappear into a breathy laugh. See, teacher- woman? The notion is so preposterous, there aren’t even words for it.

But then the teacher says, Well, we have been trying to contact you for a while.

Contact us? he asks

Trying? she asks.

To discuss our concerns, the teacher says.

Concerns? he asks.

About Freddie? she asks.

About Freddy, the teacher says.

Somehow, the buzzing in his pocket is more urgent now; taut, like the voice of an exasperated mother calling his name for the hundredth time.

The teacher says, Unfortunately, the only phone number we have on Freddy’s records is no longer …

She says, The landline? We got rid of that ages—

Yes, seemed silly when we only use our— he says.

Mobiles, yes. We only got those numbers today from Freddy’s phone … which, technically, the school doesn’t allow.

She says, We just wanted him to be able to—

In emergencies, he says.

The teacher says, Emails were also sent to the address on our records.

He says, Well, if it’s the old Hotmail account—

You should have our work emails, she says.

The teacher says, And it seems that Freddy has been… well, intercepting the letters.

Letters? She asks, turning to him.

Mr. Grace feels his own bodily rhythms synchronize with a renewed attack of anxious pulses, as if the source were not the device in his pocket, but some new vibrating internal organ. He shakes his head.

No letters, he says

The teacher sighs and says, Well, let’s start with today’s incident. Our IT man, has uploaded the footage so I can show you on the … the … oh, where is it… one second.

As the teacher rummages about her desk, the Graces engage in a silent war of facial contortions.

You didn’t update the numbers!

Why would I…?

I told you to update the numbers!  

What? When?

I don’t know… Ages ago!

Why didn’t you do it?

Because I told you to—

No, you didn’t—

Oh, for fuck’s sake…

Aha! The teacher cries. There you are! Naughty thing! she says, to the paper-thin laptop she’s excavated from a pyramid of art projects, its formally black surface dotted with sequences and feathery scraps which cling to the grey residue of removed stickers. Mrs. Grace gnaws the skin on the inside of her thumb. Later, when she looks back on this specific moment, she’ll recall the volume at which the laptop beeped and whirred to life as dramatically loud; profound, significant somehow of something. Mr. Grace, however, will have no memory of the laptop’s arrival; he’ll recall only the throbbing rhythm which extended now along his inner thigh, arousing a slew of illicit associations which he’s forced to smother by planting a firm hand on his leg and pressing down, down, down. He’ll also recall, with irritation, how the teacher looked like a befuddled fucking rabbit as she peered over her glasses at the screen, and swatted the keyboard with inept paws. Oh, and the running fucking commentary…

Now, how do I…? wait, what’s…? Warning, your computer is at risk … no, ex out of that…aaaannnndddd…no, that’s not it…

God, this fucking gormless … If only his wife would notice, would look at him. Touch him, maybe. Then he could innocently mouth the word “What?” in response, and then she might flare her eyes and, with them, gesture towards his pocket. Then he can feign surprise—he hadn’t noticed the continuous buzzing until she pointed it out, such was his engagement with the very serious matter at hand. Then, obliged by his wife’s admonishing face, he’d grab that pesky vibrating thing, and … what? He’s not sure. Except that with each intertwined beat and buzz, he’s more and more convinced that in his pocket, there is life. Not his life. But all that he desires in life. Beyond his love for wife and child; beyond his desire for money and things. In his pocket, is the source of his significance; his desire to be desired. Fear seeps from his armpits with each receding trill. God! If she would just look at him!

Mrs. Grace doesn’t notice her husband’s frantic gestures, his silent screams for her attention. So when she recalls this moment, she recalls it as the moment they learn about Kimberly. The moment the teacher teaches them that of course, all the children were curious about Kimberly when she first arrived, and that naturally, questions were encouraged. But even then, Freddy’s interest in her was more, well…intense, and—

I’m sorry, Kimberly? Mrs. Grace asks, bits of thumb-skin stuck between her teeth.

The teacher’s magnified eyes dart from the screen, and flit between the mother and the father as she says, Surely, Freddy has mentioned Kimberly!

Kimberly, Kimberly… Kimberly… Mrs. Grace scans the middle distance, searching for a memory she knows doesn’t exist.

No, she says, I don’t think he… not to me, anyway.

She turns to her husband. His tightly folded arms and staccato toe-tapping, she thinks, signal his increasing concern for their son. In fact, Mr. Grace, whose pocket for the moment is silent and still, trembles with a bitterness as unmanageable as his grown limbs on this ridiculous fucking chair, and responds to his wife’s request with a terse,

No. No Kimberly.

Her attention back on the screen, the teacher says, Well, I must say, that’s surprising, given how… Now, our new DataChild Software should have a … yes. Here we are!

She turns the laptop to face the Graces and says: Kimberly.

They are seeing a picture on a screen; a complex transmission of code and light particles, meaningless until processed through the machinery of eye and brain. The handles of her wheelchair are bedecked with stickers and ribbons. On her angled head there’s a Hello Kitty headband, and at the end of her palsied wrists, her hands bend inwards, forming an accidental heart symbol under her chin and glistening smile.

Cerebral Palsy, the teacher states. Kimberly moved here about a month ago. Lovely girl. Settled in well. But for Freddy’s harassment. Thankfully, the other children …

No, Mr. Grace says, full of certainty. No, no, no…no, obviously, there’s been some mistake here. It’s impossible that our son… as I said, we’ve always told Freddie, Hit Back, Not

Mr. Grace.

The teacher’s interruption is one of practiced authority.

Mr. Grace, let me show you what happened today.

With one sure movement, the teacher spins the laptop back towards her and commands the keys with light, fluid touches. A file of this size, she informs them, should take only 90 or so seconds to download.

Unnerved by this sudden aptitude, Mr. Grace looks to his wife, only now realizing that he has received nothing from her, nothing since Kimberly was introduced with the revelatory spin of the laptop. No words, looks, or gestures to show her shared outrage at this absurd accusation. Typical! Just typical of her to zone out now! To absorb herself in her own thoughts and abandon him! Well, fuck her! Anger shifts his chair, the floor responds with a rubbery screech. The teacher winces but doesn’t look up from the screen, the reflection of which flickers light and blue on the surface of her glasses.

Mrs. Grace’s gaze falls into them, these glimmering reversals of screen onto lens. They hold her trance-like, so that everything else in the room—the powder-paint smell, her husband’s shallow breath, the brush of organic cotton against her skin—loses precision. Only Timelines, Stories, and Streaks are clearly defined; the up-and-downloadable, the Tweeted, the Posted, the Liked, and the Shared. These are places Mrs Grace visits to access memories that no longer exist. Not outside the interface she mentally scrolls through, searching for Freddie.

There he is. In the photo of the only time he met Great Grandpa and screamed when they placed him on the old man’s bony lap. (#generations#preciousmoments 💓) There he is, in the video taken at the beach, eating sand from a bucket. (OMG! Left him with Dad for 5 minutes! ☺☼); in the video of the time the baby monitor broadcast him whispering “fuck, fuck, fuck” into Elmo’s ear. (LOL. #pottymouth 😲😆) There he is. Her Good Boy.

Later, Mr. Grace will swear that when the video had downloaded, the teacher had actually clapped her hands to get their attention; evidence, he’ll claim, of her constant effort to belittle him in front of his wife. Mrs. Grace, however, remains silent whenever he mentions this detail. All she remembers is that her pleasant scroll down memory lane is interrupted. Replaced by grainy images on the laptop screen; secret angles, varieties of black, familiar footage some viewers will find disturbing.

The scene is a playground. Soundless shadows flit in and out of the frame; legs skip, hands are held, scuffed shoes chase a bouncing ball, or saunter in pairs, and childhood passes in an impossible numeric blur in the lower right-hand corner.

They see her wheelchair first. Most people do. A girl stands behind it, brushing Kimberly’s hair. Suddenly, she stops and moves in front of Kimberly who starts jerking her wheel-locked chair; irregular, spasmodic movements, interpretable as laughter only through the other girl’s shaking shoulders. After placing a hair band—maybe the Hello Kitty one—on Kimberly’s head, Hairbrusher points to a black space beyond an open door at the top of the frame, and waves at Kimberly as she skips and disappears into it. The ceaseless numbers show she’s not alone for long.

This child is larger than Hairbrusher. His school tie hangs loose, as does his untucked shirt, and Mr. Grace wants to shout that he would never let his son get out of the car looking like that, but he doesn’t. Because now it’s not only clear that this image, this intricate arrangement of a million, million dotted pixels represents his son, Freddie, but that it’s motionless presence is malevolent. He doesn’t notice the vibrations from his pocket have started again.

This image of Freddie squats in front of Kimberly’s chair and touches her bare shin with his finger. Then same finger, different shin. And again. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Grace takes their eyes from the screen as the teacher explains:

According to Kimberly, Freddy said he doesn’t believe she has feeling in her legs. And that he’s going to prove she’s a liar.

Now the boy studies the girl’s face and he’s motionless except for the finger on her leg which advances up, up, up, unwavering, dauntless before the hem of her skirt, then up, up, up and under it, and up, up some more until his forearm disappears under the grey pleats, and Kimberly is bolting against her chair back, causing her hair band to fall into her eyes, then onto the bridge of her nose, and Freddie withdraws his hand and puts his fingers to his lips. Standing now, he steps to the side of the chair, and gently replaces her headband.

At this, Mr. Grace sighs with strange relief. His son is curious, that’s all; clearly “the talk” needs to happen sooner than anticipated. Perhaps, Mr. Grace stretches as he ponders, he should set more stringent security measures on Freddie’s internet access; doesn’t Dr. Flyte warn that the inevitable pornography stash will likely be digital? Far easier to conceal than his own paper stockpile. But he’s confused now, as he watches his son take the forgotten hairbrush from Kimberly’s lap. Why hasn’t the teacher stopped the video? Next to him, his wife tears strips of skin from her thumb, tasting the blood that prickles on the raw, pink surface.

She hasn’t taken her eyes from the boy on the screen, understanding that there is something inevitable in the way he holds the hairbrush, the way he moves back to the foot of Kimberly’s chair, the way he kneels before her. Watching Freddie press the bristles into the girl’s leg is like watching him die. Mr. Grace sits forward now. What is Freddie doing with that hairbrush? Why is he suddenly standing? And with such angry speed? She’s said something to make him do this. Perhaps, the Grace’s separately think, she’s threatened to tell, or scream, or called him a name. Regardless, his movement towards her is unremarkable, demonstrative of nothing, and Mrs. Grace is breathless and hovering above her wobbly chair, as certain of her son’s impending death as if she were watching him climb the gallows.

The hairbrush descends with expressionless force and before he can see it rise and fall, and rise and fall again, the father upends the child-size chair, turning his back to the screen as he stands, propelled by his own momentum towards the large classroom window and the diminishing daylight beyond. A single vibration courses down his left leg. Then silence.

***

Red lights snake into infinity, and words flash orange warnings in the wet dark. The car is stopped. His fingers beat an impatient tattoo on the steering wheel until a stray beat activates the radio: a sudden shock of phoned-in vitriol. He kills the voice with a closed fist, and apologises. Her glance is hard as she bends to retrieve the phone she dropped in fright. He’s trying not to think of his own, it’s useless corpse lying light-less amid the loose change and cough drop wrappers under the console. His stomach yawns, empty and weak.

Her eyes are dry. Uncomfortably, so. With the heel of the hand not holding the phone on which she’s Googled “Child Psychologists Near Me” she grinds her left eye until she feels the empty cavern of her skull. She asks her husband if he has any eye drops in the car. At the edge of her vision, spectrums fizz and dissolve. He says, no.

His son sits silently, his head against the darkness of the window. There. His son. The only other human whose entire life he occupies. A reflection of the boy’s face, a grossly orange conjoined twin, reveals itself in the intermittent flicker of the outside hazard light, its fused forehead bulging and grotesque. This, the father thinks, is an appropriate symbol of what has happened today. He turns back to the road, pleased with this interpretation.

She’s saying, There are lots of specialists, but—

He’s replying, Read the reviews. We don’t want some—

Through her teeth, she’s saying, I am reading the fucking reviews.

Ok, ok.

It’s just there’s none nearby …

His palms pound the steering wheel and he shouts that he doesn’t care how far or how expensive…! With a calming hand on his elbow, she gestures with her head to the back seat. Remember the warnings … adverse effects of parental tension …

And hadn’t they, she digs again at her dry eyes, always kept the negative stuff away from him. And hadn’t they given him his own phone so he could always feel connected to them? —he’ll never feel alone. He’s never called; they’re both grateful for this. And hadn’t they filled his time with healthy pursuits? Filtered his playlists of violent misogyny, said no social media until he is ten? (A child’s screen should be a window, not a mirror, Dr. B Flight, Ph.D.) Didn’t she text him every morning as she rode the train to work? And always when she knew the car was dropping him at school—the expensive private school for which they had denied themselves so fucking much. And wasn’t it the same message every day. “I ♥ U!” “I ♥ U!” “I ♥ U!”

A pulse. An update. She’s guided by her stinging thumb. To a Timeline. Last summer, in the garden, with Freddie; the phone now in her hand, then at the end of a stick. Her preferred angle. She beams with deliberate naturalness, he squeezes his face shut with a wide grin, lines from his tightly closed eyes connect to those around his gurning mouth. (My funny face! LOL) Which part of her knows his smile is fake? Which part of her sees a picture of a scrappy, loveable imp, hamming it up for the camera? Which part of her can recall the moment? Remembers seeing the phone on the stick? All her pictures—My Future England captain. My best boy and his Xbox. See? She is a good mother.

The boy tilts his head against the window. Rain falls on his reflection, and he bets on raindrop races streaming down his window. From this angle, he can move his eyes to see his father’s white knuckled grip on the gearstick, and a faint bluish glow on his mother’s face. She’s looking at pictures, he thinks. Pictures of me.

Sensing his stare, the mother turns to meet it. To look at her son. The flesh and blood of her flesh and blood. She smiles. Without moving his head, he turns his eyes from her, returning to the endless dark beyond his window.

glasses

Caroline Griego

Originally from Liverpool, Caroline Griego now lives and works in the Chicago area. Her short stories have appeared in Litro online, 34th PARALLEL magazine, and Two Hawks Quarterly among others.

Twitter @carolinegriego 

Instagram carolinegriego7

Image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

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