Two Feet Apart

This is the first short story I had published. It appeared on the Residential Aliens website (now taken down it appears) in April 2010. It was an exciting thing, having someone pay me for my writing, even if it was only a small amount.

Stephen’s eyes opened and his brow furrowed, puzzled. Something was different, but what? He looked around him, and his room looked the same; all his furniture was in the right spot, the central air conditioning and filtering unit was whirring away contentedly, and . . . he could hear the central air being pumped into his room. He had never heard that sound before. It had forced air into his room for the past twenty years and yet this day marked the first time he had ever heard it. Odd that something so simple can stand out all of a sudden, he thought as he got off the couch and headed into the kitchen for a snack.

As he stood in the five-by-five cubicle, his shoulders began to shake, gently at first, but with increasing force, until a loud laugh burst from his diaphragm. As if I could even get any food without my DLS operating, he thought happily. His chuckles continuing, he put on his jacket and stepped outside into the hallway of his high-rise apartment complex and headed for the elevator. The two-hundred some odd stories between him and the ground would take only a minute to pass, so Stephen didn’t have much time to focus on the polychromatic digital display as the numbers swept past like the flow of traffic on the multi-tiered freeway outside his apartment. But Stephen did notice, once again, for the first time. It’s amazing, he thought. Has this always been here or was it just recently added? If it’s always been here, I would have noticed it before now. It must be new.

The elevator touched down on the ground floor and Stephen strode out to the front doors and into the street. The air was clean and the sun was bright, but it was always like that. Wasn’t it? A steady flow of cars and pedestrians swept past him. As Stephen watched, he noticed each pedestrian walked about two feet behind the person in front of him. Hundreds of people passed by and each person was spaced evenly—two feet apart. The cars too, though they moved so fast it was hard to tell exactly, were spaced evenly it seemed—two feet apart. And strangely, with all the traffic, both human and machine, there was hardly any sound on the street.

How odd, Stephen thought, as he merged into the pedestrian traffic headed downtown, toward the DLS office. Stephen walked along with the crowd, looking around as he went. Splotches of green burst into sight as he rounded the corner—trees. Had he ever noticed those trees before? Stephen stopped and as he did, the traffic behind him did also. A ripple of confusion passed through the crowd milling in consternation behind him. A line began to form as confused citizens focused their eyes on this unprecedented roadblock. The man behind Stephen even began to sweat in perplexity. At first, Stephen didn’t notice the disturbance his momentary pause had caused; he was too enraptured by the soft speckling of bleach-white blossoms on a background of verdant green leaves. Nature was something he was used to seeing through his DLS, but not through his eyes. It existed in some far off place, but not in his own city.

Gradually another new feeling swept over him, and he was aware, for the first time in his recollection, of the people surrounding him. He felt their confusion and the press of bodies stacking up behind him. He glanced back at the sweating man, who grimaced as though physically pained by the interruption of his normal routine, flashed a small, apologetic smile to the obviously uncomfortable man and danced his way through the evenly spaced two-foot gaps to a spot clear of traffic. The pedestrian traffic immediately picked up in his absence, and no one spared him another glance.

How did I fail to notice these colors? Stephen wondered. They were so vibrant, so bold, they really were impossible to miss. And with the blue sky spread out behind them, peeking mischievously between the branches, he could almost have believed they wanted to be noticed. Almost. The tree may have been beautiful and that thought may have been interesting, but he had no time for either. Neither did he have the patience to ponder either in more depth than he already had. Perhaps these trees are new too, he thought, smiling, and jumped back into the flow of traffic.

But Stephen quickly grew bored with the two foot buffer zone between every person and began to vary his pace; walking first faster than normal, whizzing past people on his right and left as though he were one of those race cars the DLS was always showing, then walking so slowly that traffic once again began to pile up behind him, and the sudden focus of the people around him became a palpable thing. In truth, he found it all rather amusing. Imagine that people could get so flustered by something so simple.

In all, Stephen enjoyed his four-block walk, enjoyed it more than he could remember enjoying anything. There were so many things he noticed for the first time that he began to lose track. He heard birds serenading an unlistening and uncaring populace; he saw butterflies flitting and fluttering across the street, thinking butterfly thoughts and dreaming butterfly dreams; he felt the sun gently caressing his neck and shoulders with its tender warmth; he saw occasional clouds drifting past on errands of their own; he watched a trail of ants bustle across the sidewalk, each walking at its own pace in zigs and zags with no regard for space between them, carrying little scraps of food for their larvae; he even saw a stray dog sitting miserably in the shade of a building, all its hopes of an affectionate pat on the head extinguished by long months of being overlooked—or more accurately, by long months without even being noticed. The dog saw Stephen watching him and began to slowly wag her tail starting with the faintest flicks of the tip, and proceeding to full tail wags when she saw Stephen smile.

Stephen looked up from his new friend and saw the building he sought just a few yards ahead, “Direct Linkage Services” etched in the marble façade. He smiled once more at the dog, waved to her, and walked into the foyer. I’ll go back and scratch her ears on my way out. The dog watched him go and its tail slowly wound to a halt.

After a few minutes of searching he found an open repair station. As soon as he stepped into the small, metal-framed structure a handsome but unremarkable face appeared on the screen in front of him.

“Welcome citizen,” the face smiled inhospitably. “Please stand still while I verify your identity and check your account status.”

Two small pods dropped from the ceiling. One hovered in front of his face, scanning the iris of each eye, while the other zipped from his fingertips to the top of his head, where it removed a short brown hair. He nearly reached out to grab his hair back from the machine—he didn’t exactly have a lot of brown hair left to spare. The conquering army of age was advancing across his scalp, leaving outposts of gray sentinels guarding against any revolution by the browns attempting to reclaim lost ground. As each pod finished its duty, oblivious to his consternation, it disappeared into the hole it came from just moments before.

“I apologize for the delay citizen,” the face sympathized unfeelingly, “it will take a few minutes to process your information. I appreciate your patience.”

Stephen stood quietly looking around at the empty metal walls and soon became bored. There was really very little to see inside the machine, and the smiling face had disappeared—apparently to analyze his information personally. I can’t remember ever being this bored, he thought as he fidgeted with the buttons of his shirt. It seemed that days passed, perhaps even years, before the face returned, still smiling.

“Stephen Redman, it is my pleasure to service you. I am creating a new Direct Linkage System, which we will insert to replace your faulty one. It will be just one moment.” And with that, the smiling face disappeared again.

The years turned to decades as Stephen waited, still fidgeting with his buttons. Stephen’s right hand reached up to touch his hair as he idly wondered if more gray hairs had sprung up to replace the brown while he waited. His thoughts drifted back to the day when the DLS went on the market. He had been first in line, camped out the night before. “After all,” he had said, “what’s not to like about it?” Earbuds, screens, monitors, keyboards, touchpads, phones–all were things of the past. Wires had been done away with years before, but this . . . this was the future! Direct connections, always active and available. It was all of his communication and entertainment needs bundled into a product he didn’t even need to carry. It was a beautiful thing. But I’ve seen beautiful things today too, haven’t I? More beautiful than this, I’d wager, and actually seen them too, not just in my mind, but with my eyes.  The hatch opened and the pods came out again, thrusting Stephen’s thoughts back into the moment, the all-important now.

The pods descended slowly from the ceiling to hover, one at each temple, two feet apart. They circled his head, slowly at first, but with steadily increasing velocity. A field of electricity formed around the rim of the pods’ orbit, crackling and sparking. With a soft pop, the electric current around him dissipated and the pods ascended back into the ceiling.

The smiling face returned. “Your new DLS has been implanted. It will be activated in three-two-one-”SNAP!

Life returned to Stephen then and there. A steady stream of images and information filled his mind, connecting him directly with every other human on the planet, revealing events from around the globe. Messages from his friends had stockpiled during the hours his DLS had been down, asking if he was dead, or incapacitated in some way.

The doors opened and Stephen walked out, his eyes flitting unseeing past the shy flicks and wags of a dog’s tail, so consumed was he in watching in his mind the image of some foolish man with hair more gray than brown standing by a white-blossomed tree, holding up the flow of traffic. Strange person, Stephen thought as he stepped out into the sunlight, slipping without a thought into the traffic flowing past, everyone walking two feet apart.

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