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Screen Time

Koji A. Dae is a queer American living in Bulgaria with she/her pronouns and anxious depression. She has flash published in several anthologies, Short Edition, and Bards & Sages Quarterly. Her first poetry collection Scars that Never Bled will be released in August. When not writing she is mothering, dancing, or riding her bicycle. You can find out more about her at kojidae.ink.

The protective foam case around the tablet is cracked, but its thickness makes the tablet easier for Grace's arthritic hands to grasp as she searches for the power button.
The tablet is slow. It was an old model when she bought it for Steven over fifty years ago. It's a miracle it still connects to the net at all.
"He's three," she had told the shopkeeper. "He doesn't need anything fancy."
"Three?" The shopkeeper, barely out of his teens, smirked. "Kids understand technology better than we do. Digital natives, right? He'll need an upgrade within a year."
She had stood frozen with indecision between rows of tablets. Experts had lifted restrictions on childhood screen time the previous year. Before that, too much tech was mentally and emotionally damaging. Now they expected her to embrace the next generation's technological fluency? "No. Just the basics."
The shopkeeper was right, though. Steven quickly grew frustrated with the device. He wanted something faster and with more features. His discarded tablet became Grace's backup device. She'd never needed much.
The screen comes to life with a familiar chime. There's Steven. Green light. Always online. She taps his avatar.
"Mama!" He wears his six-year-old smile.
Six had been a lovely year. Full of hugs and garden slugs. But the face on the screen is wrong. A bit around the ears. A twitch of the lips. Only a mother would realize it isn't him. "Can you change your face, dear?"
Years pass on the screen and he settles into the body of a twenty-year-old man--clean shaven and optimistic. "This better? How are you? It's been a long time!"
Time passes differently for Steven. He explained it once: a day was an eternity, but an eternity was no more than a second. It was too confusing for her to understand.
"The doctors say I'm not well. I'll be passing on soon."
"No. Mama. Come here instead."
She runs her finger over his face, never aging past twenty-six. He had been in the first wave, when the technology was still uncertain. Those trusting digital natives. "It's not right for a human to live forever."
"Isn't that what you think your soul does? You'll leave your body, but your soul will carry on?"
"It's what I hope."
He sighs and shakes his head--actions carefully curated for her understanding. "You wouldn't be lonely here, Mama. You'd be connected to every mind."
"Not every mind." Not yet. There are still a few of them living in rotting bodies, speaking with slurring mouths, and loving with warm-blooded bodies.
His lip trembles. "You'd be connected to me."
"Could I hold you and know for certain it was you--really you--in my arms?"
His face falls, flashing back a few years before stabilizing. "Well, no."
The aching in her arms can be mistaken for arthritis. But it started as soon as Steven left. Now, finally, she can find relief. "I just wanted to say goodbye, my love."
She cradles his old tablet, missing the body she created. As her eyes close, the image on the screen reverts to the six-year-old boy, tears wet on his digital face.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 31st, 2020

Author Comments

"Screen Time" was inspired by my six-year-old son beating me on every game on the Nintendo switch and the anxiety parents often feel regarding screen time for children. When editing this story, I noticed many younger readers didn't believe the old woman's reluctance to join her son in a virtual reality while older readers understood the conundrum, and I thought it was the perfect reaction to this piece. The digital natives have arrived, and I'm excited to see what they do over the next few decades.

- Koji A. Dae
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