“Unmute yourself, Alice.”
Alice stopped mid-sentence and clicked on the mic button. She knew right where it was and forgot to push it every time she tried to speak.
“Can you hear me now?” she asked. Most of the faces on the videoconference nodded. They looked irritated, or at least Alice imagined they did.
“Well, I was saying that we should remember to include last year’s seasonal adjustments in building our pricing model,” she repeated.
“Fair point,” answered Darin, who was the team leader and host of the team’s daily virtual gatherings. “But Ron already group shared that slide in chat so we’re all set.”
Alice’s shoulders slumped as she nodded. Ron beamed in his little box with a video of a sandy beach in his background, the waves lolling gently behind him.
“If that’s all, I’d say it’s a wrap,” Darin said. “Thank you, everyone, and stay safe.”
Faces began disappearing as soon as Darin said “wrap,” replaced by the participants names like screen credits in a movie. Tonya, Alice’s best and only work friend, spoke up.
“Alice, stay on just for a bit?”
“Sure,” Alice replied as everyone out, leaving her and Tonya surrounded only by words.
“Ron’s such a dick,” Tonya said as she shook her head.
“Tonya, you can’t say things like that. Somebody could be listening!”
Tonya laughed in a smoker’s cough.
“He’s the same in every meeting,” Alice said.
Tonya nodded. “Right?”
“I just wish I knew what he was talking about,” Alice continued.
“I know, and what’s with the beach?” Tonya added. Alice shrugged.
“He’s just using the functions built into the platform,” Tonya continued. “He’s working the system, literally. That’s what men do.”
“I can’t even remember to turn on my microphone,” Alice said.
“You just need to spend some time figuring it out. Pretend it’s a toy or something. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
“I’m not scared,” Alice lied.
She was terrified of technology and how it got between people, parsing and wrapping them in awkward audio clips and little boxes on screens. Changing them. Alice couldn’t shake the idea that it wasn’t even Tonya she was talking to, but some artificial version that looked and sounded like her.
“Well, go get yourself your own beach,” Tonya said. “I gotta go. Love ya.” She blinked out before Alice could respond, leaving her name behind.
Alice closed her laptop’s lid. The room was silent. There were no sounds outside either, no neighbors chatting as they walked by her house, no cars or trucks driving too fast along her street. Nothing was happening, and there were no more videoconferences on her schedule.
She got up and walked over to her bed and promptly fell asleep.
It was dark when she woke up, and still quiet. Alice sat up and got herself to her kitchen, turning on lights as she moved through her bedroom, hallway and dining room. Everything was silent, empty. She was alone. It was in these brief journeys through her house that she thought of her husband and son.
They never spoke. Rog had been gone for over a decade, but he’d not been wholly there for as long as she could remember. Alice had no idea where he was or whom he was with. She couldn’t decide if she wanted him to be happy or not, but she never pondered it past the hallway.
Derek posed different questions: he’d left when he was 16 after inciting days of explosive and righteous argument, and she’d not seen or heard from him since. She’d ask herself where he might be and if he was happy but accepted the utter absence of an answer by the time she flipped on the light in the kitchen.
Alice opened her fridge and opened it. Low-calorie complete meals were stacked neatly against one wall and she grabbed the box on top without bothering to look at the label. Closing the door, she held it up and saw that it was Chicken Alfredo. It didn’t matter.
Five minutes in the microwave gave her time to fill a drinking glass with Chardonnay and rinse a fork from the sink before taking the plastic tray and gingerly putting it on a plate. She carried her meal back to her desk in her bedroom and opened her laptop.
“OK, you’re a toy,” she said to her computer as she clicked on the videoconferencing app. The standard screen loaded, and there she was in the center, her hair tousled like she’d just come in from a hurricane that had also blown away all of her makeup, leaving wrinkles in its place. Alice watched herself unclenching her jaw and then examined the underside of her chin. She took a few deep breaths.
A series of icons lined the bottom of her video: the first one was a mic with a line through it, which was the button she forgot was there every time she struggled to remember what she wanted to say. Next was a camera icon that she’d never touched, followed by a cartoon bubble that must have been that damn chat thing, and then a button with three dots on it which she didn’t remember ever seeing before. Alice clicked on it and a screen popped up superimposed on her image with a list of various adjustments she could make, starting with Change Background.
“Ah, Ron’s secret,” she muttered, then chuckled as she remembered what Tonya had called him. Clicking on it pulled up her photo album and a long array of little images filled her screen. She clicked on the first one, which was a picture she’d taken of Tonya at work holding up an awful coffee cup.
The array disappeared but she returned to her image with a darkened bedroom behind her. And silence. She clicked on a second and then third image of similarly silly things and her background stubbornly returned every time.
Alice began to feel her anxiety welling up behind her jaw. She scrolled down and the pictures started using real words instead of gibberish codes. Rog has scanned her old pictures over a weekend a long time ago.
The last image on the screen was a folder icon titled Family, which was where Rog had put all of the pictures of his family, their family. It had been so long since Alice had looked at them that she’d almost forgotten where they’d gone together and what they’d done, let alone that the visual record remained on her computer, albeit somewhat hidden.
She took a long sip of wine and scrolled back up and stopped at a shot in which she sat on her grandmother’s lap. Alice remembered it immediately. She had been only five or so. The picture had been taken in her parents’ living room as her grandmother sat in a large wing backed chair. Her grandmother had died less than a year later.
Alice clicked on the image to put it in her background but instead she found the image next to hers. Another participant.
It was immediately obvious that it wasn’t the photo, not exactly. Her grandmother wore the same clothes as she did in the picture and sat on the same chair worn itchy suede chair, only Alice wasn’t sitting on her lap, and her grandmother was smiling as she looked at what would have been her computer camera if computers existed then.
“Gama?” Alice whispered, using the nickname she’d given her when she’d first mispronounced her name.
Her grandmother smiled as she looked right at Alice, then started to talk but there was no sound.
“Unmute yourself, Gama,” Alice said. Her grandmother paused for a moment and smiled, then continued to talk.
“No, see the little button in the field below your screen,” Alice added before realizing that Gama would think that “a little button in a field” had fallen off someone’s coat during a walk. Her grandmother simply kept on talking. Alice tried to read her lips but couldn’t make out a single word.
But she remembered lots of them. Gama always had something to say and she spoke in an odd lilt that Alice later learned came from an early childhood in Ireland. She believed that friends should share their toys, kids should respect their parents, and it was OK to rebel in little ways like only sort of brushing your teeth. She loved to let Alice make up card games when she visited.
Alice remembered feeling so happy and was surprised by a sob that came from somewhere deep inside as tears welled up in her eyes. She closed them and took a long sip of wine.
When she opened them, her grandmother was gone. Alice went back to the picture and clicked on it, only nothing happened. She clicked again. Still nothing. She wiped a sniffle from her nose and reached for her wine glass but saw that it was empty, so she went to the fridge and loaded it to the brim and sat back down.
Next to Gama’s picture was a shot of Alice’s parents on Christmas morning that same year. They were smiling but Alice had tears on her cheeks. She remembered that day, a day when she had expected to get a Barbie camper set and instead received an Easy Bake oven. She remembered her dad in particular, explaining to her that getting Christmas presents wasn’t like placing orders in a store, and that her birthday was in a few months anyway.
Alice clicked on the picture and a frame appeared next to her video. Across it read the word Dad.
“Dad, are you there?” she asked, followed by a large gulp of wine.
“Oh, it’s not all that bad, sweetie,” she heard him say. His voice was slightly thinner than she remembered it, but maybe that was due to the laptop’s speakers.
“Turn on your…,” Alice said and then caught herself. He didn’t have a camera or a computer. This wasn’t happening.
“I’m sure you find something fun to do with it,” her father said.
“I am,” Alice answered, “Can’t you see me?”
“She’s so set on Barbie, isn’t she?” her father said to her mother, just as Alice remembered.
“Your birthday isn’t that far away, young lady,” he added.
Alice scanned her screen for some button to push, but there was nothing to turn on her father’s camera which couldn’t exist.
“Dad, can you see me?” she asked.
“Let’s see how it goes,” he replied. Alice sat upright.
“Wait, what did you say?”
There was no response. Alice took a sip of wine and then asked again, but her father didn’t speak. She waited a long time, finishing her wine, noticing that her eyes and cheeks were wet again with tears. Sometime while she waited the box with his name on it disappeared.
Alice wiped her nose and pushed her glass past her reach on the table. She’d heard her father’s voice now just as clearly as she’d heard him say the very same words so long ago. She could remember smelling the tree and wondering where her cat was when she was opening presents.
She found another picture, this time of her grade school friend Brinny at the moment she unveiled her new bicycle. Brinny wore a t-shirt and shorts in the muted earth tones that were stylish back then. Before clicking on the image, Alice typed Tonya’s name and sent her a meeting invite. Tonya appeared in her own little box on the screen a moment later. She must live in front of the thing.
“Hey there,” Tonya said. “What’s up?”
“I wanna show you something,” Alice said. “Do you live on this thing?” she added.
“Oooh, you figured out your new toy?” Tonya added. Alice clicked on the pic of Brinny and she appeared on the screen right next to Tonya and started talking, her hands never leaving the tasseled handlebars of her bike.
“See that?” Alice asked.
“See what?,” Tonya answered.
“My friend Brinny and her stupid new bike,” Alice explained, pointing at her screen.
“I don’t see anybody, just you,” Tonya said, “But I’m happy to talk to your friend.”
Alice shook her head. “You can’t talk to her. You can only see her talking without any sound.”
Tonya shrugged. “That’s weird, but Iike I said, I can’t see her.”
“What’s weird is that she’s dead,” Alice added. “She died from ovarian cancer over a decade ago.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“No, no, that’s not it, she’s on my screen trying to talk to me!”
“Girl, I think you need to skip that next glass of wine and go to bed. We have our first call tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. sharp.”
Tonya waved and disappeared before Alice could react. She immediately went to the fridge and filled her wine glass and returned to her computer.
Alice spent the next who knows how many hours surrounded by the sights and sounds of the oldest photos in her collection. There was no particular order to which images showed video or played sounds, though the quotes were always ones she remembered, even if she had to be reminded. Every picture brought forth more memories, happy and sad, each as real and present as they’d been when she’d first experienced them.
She woke up to the sound of her morning meeting invite and joined it before she was fully awake. She didn’t engage in the conversation over the next hour until she was asked for her opinion. Alice went right to the mic button.
“Nope, got nothing,” which everyone heard even though it was a lie because she had a lot of say right off the top of her head. Then the call ended. Ron hadn’t even bothered to show up. The other participants popped off the screen. Alice pushed her chair back, thinking it might be a good idea to take a shower and change the clothes she’d been wearing since yesterday.
Then she noticed there were still two participants on the screen. They were both named Alice. One frame showed her sitting just as she was, hair askew and her makeup less applied than smudged; in the other she was dressed for the world, pulled together about as much as she ever was. And she looked pissed.
“Alice?” Alice asked her better-dressed self.
“You know you had something to say,” she replied. The judgment in her voice was palpable.
“Yeah, well,” Alice began to say and then changed course. “Who are you?”
“You also don’t need to fiddle with some fake background. You have a real one.”
“Of course I do, but wait…” Her other self looked directly into the camera. Alice noticed that her background was the same as hers, only arranged more neatly.
“Why are you scared?”
Alice stiffened. “I’m not scared.”
“Yes, you are, only you lie to yourself about why.”
“That’s not, well, yeah, but wait, I’m not talking to you!”
Alice sighed. “The world is falling apart and so am I.” Her voice trailed off. She looked closely at her other self on the screen.
“Loneliness isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind,” her video participant said.
“Well that’s about as stupid as it is catchy,” she told herself.
“Remember,” her avatar added and then disappeared from the videoconference.
Alice clenched her fists and for a moment didn’t know if she wanted to hit herself on the computer. She didn’t do it, and instead made a point of closing the videoconference app and then turning off her machine. She waited until the screen went dark and closed the lid, then unplugged it for good measure.
She was so mad. There was so much she could have said, said to herself, so much more about how difficult it was to remember who she was, who the other she was or, well, she knew what she meant. Remember? What did that have to do with anything?
Alice was about to get up and take that shower when she thought better of it and instead opened her laptop and turned it on. She looked up and saw the sun shining through her shutters. It looked like it was going to be a nice day outside, not that it mattered indoors.
Alice loaded the videoconferencing app and then clicked her way to the background button and to her old photos, and clicked on an image of her aunt and uncle at a Thanksgiving dinner she remembered as a horror show, as it had been the time she realized a turkey was a dead bird.
Nothing happened. She clicked again. Nothing. A few more times yielded the same result. Alice clicked on the picture next to it, which was a shot from a hot and buggy day at summer camp when she’d just finished making a lanyard.
Clicking on another dozen or so images produced the same outcome. It didn’t work anymore. Her snarky doppelgänger self didn’t appear on the conferencing screen, either.
Now the sun was in her eyes, so Alice got up and closed the shutters and then went to the counter to make herself a cup of coffee. What did she expect her to do? It didn’t make sense, not talking to her or spending time with her parents and all of her old friends just as they’d been for, well, forever in her mind. She felt the urge to cry and laugh at the same time and had to steady herself against the countertop as her coffee brewed.
She returned with her cup to her computer and went back to her photo file. The image next to the last picture she’d clicked on was the folder of Rog and Derek pictures she’d avoided the night before. Avoided since the day Rog left her. She took a long, deep breath and wondered what would happen if the pictures came alive.
She’d see Rog on their honeymoon, trying to talk about something serious as he wore her too-small frilly robe. She’d remember laughing uncontrollably, just like she did when her snorkel filled with water on their first trip to the Caribbean, or beaming with pride on the day she left for her first day of work after getting Derek off to first grade, all cheery and full of hope for a job that she’d learn to love before forgetting how she felt about it.
And Derek, so many pictures of Derek, his presence and voice and even what he smelled like, every moment including the difficult ones framed with life and love.
Alice opened the folder and let herself remember.
[This story will appear later this year in a collection of pandemic-related short stories entitled Strange In Place]