We're debuting our prose & poetry section today with Chapter 1 of Kids These Days, a novel by Ben Sack!
"KIDS THESE DAYS is a futuristic comedy about elderly millennials navigating a world where they're no longer cool. It's the year 2062, and sixty-seven-year old Cal Feinman has never had a real job, never been married, and never had children. But when a misguided sperm donation shows up on the doorstep of his government-provided housing in the shape of a teenage girl, his comfortable life is thrown into chaos.
With KIDS THESE DAYS, I tried to write our generation in a new perspective, by putting us in the shoes of the old people who like to scold us for not buying houses or not eating marmalade or whatever. Turns out, we'll be just as out-of-touch as they are." - Ben Sack
A BUNCH OF OLD JUNK
Between the glass cases displaying cluttered clusters of iPods, through the bookshelves bursting with the mournful pages of the last magazines, among the forgotten crates of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs which no one had the means nor desire to watch, ricocheted the joyful sounds of a game of Super Smash Brothers Melee. Through the half-open doorway at the back of the antique store rattled the relentless clicking-click-clicking of the controllers, accompanied by the incandescent glow of New England’s only operational CRT TV. It was not yet nine-o'clock, and the morning sun was still busy rousing those who worked, screaming at them with its spitfire colors, “get up, weary fools, make yourselves useful!” The sun, however, would not be screaming at these three old men -- and it hadn’t for a very, very long time.
“Wait, wait, I should have L-canceled there, I should have…” Cal muttered as Ethan battered him over the edge with a forward smash. “The controller’s busted, I missed my wavedash,” he complained as his last stock was lost, and Ethan’s Fox taunted him from the victory screen.
“Blame the controller,” Ethan snorted. “Blame the game disc, blame the power grid, what was it last time?”
“Allergies,” interjected Nick, his fist buried in a box of General Mills French Toast Crunch cereal.
“Don’t you remember they cured allergies?” Ethan prodded. “We got the shots together, remember?”
“Didn’t work for me,” Cal said. “I still get all teary when September rolls around.”
“You’re always crying about one thing or another.”
“Don’t blame a man for his emotions,” Cal said, reciting a slogan from some mental health awareness posters that ran in the 2030s. “Feelings are for everyone.”
Nick burst into one of his sudden laughing fits, spraying his companions with bits of ancient maple-flavored corn puffs. Thirty-five years ago, just before the Sugary Snacks Act went into effect, Nick spent his entire savings on a thousand boxes of French Toast Crunch. He had been eating them constantly ever since, at a rate most people would find repulsive. He kept them in a storage locker, the location of which was his most treasured secret, and though Cal and Ethan had suspected for years he must be drawing near the end, there was somehow always another box. As for the laughing fit, Nick was prone to them, an effect of his experiments with mind-altering substances, his favorite hobby throughout his time in the Program. Ethan, who was a medical student in his former life, was certain he could pinpoint the exact solution which caused Nick’s hysteria -- a mixture of pureed fir tree needles and cattle urine Nick called “Everyellow,” the effects of which were, as recorded in his lab notes: a feeling of solidarity with animals, intense need to brush teeth, and overall contentedness.
Cal, for his part, could do with a little contentedness, though he never experimented with drugs, because with his luck, he would be caught by Mrs. Overby and removed from the Program, a fate which at his age would be as good as death.
Nick’s cackling sounded something like a moose crossed with an alligator who had just swallowed a canary. For all it’s apparent chaos, it was surprisingly regular -- two large guffaws, followed by a shriek, then a gurgle, then a rattle, then repeat. His friends had been listening to it for so long that they could tell by it’s cadence how long it would last, and sometimes placed bets on the matter.
“How long you want?” Cal poked Ethan in the shoulder.
“Give me one,” Ethan said.
“I’ll take two,” Cal said.
Ethan took his smartphone out of his pocket and started a timer. As the numbers ticked up, the heaving breaths between the shrieks and the gurgles became less and less frequent, until finally he puffed out his cheeks, beat his chest with his fist, and belched, like someone who just defeated the hiccups. The clock read two minutes and thirteen seconds.
“Five bucks,” Cal said.
“You owe me five from last time,”
“Fair enough,” Cal stood up, clasped his hands together, and lifted his elbows, sending an inhuman wave of popping noises crackling through his joints like electricity on a malfunctioning power line. At full posture, you could see Cal was a slight man, barely five foot seven the last time he checked, and bony as a dried cod. His sharpest points -- the elbows, knees, and hips -- poked at the insides of his oversized flannel and khakis like tentpoles.
“You should get that checked out,” Ethan said, referring to Cal’s carbonated joints.
“How long have you known me?” Cal retorted.
“Usually there’s eleven pops,” Ethan said. “That time there were thirteen.”
“Lucky number,” Nick added.
The front door of the antique store opened, and the electronic chime went wee woo, startling the owner, who had been snoring behind the register. He was a rickety gentleman named Harry, even older than our three old men. Harry sat in a mahogany rocking chair (an original Boston Rocker, in fact), and when he jerked awake, he sent himself on a wild oscillation which he did not have the will to counteract.
“WhooOo, WhaAt!” Harry shouted, his doppler-effect voice wobbling off the dusty walls. “Yooou ThrEe? I thooouught I toooold you nOT to COMe bacK!”
“You’ve been telling us that for fifteen years,” Nick said.
“Wasn’t us,” Ethan was pointing at the front door, his long, skeletal finger trembling like it were pointing at the ghost of Christmas yet to come.
Harry’s rocking chair froze in place.
“We’ll I’ll be…” he sputtered. “Customers.”
Two teenagers stepped inside and started to pick their way through the haphazard piles of inventory. Their faces were blank -- they were lost in the chatter of the Tön devices which harbored in their ears and interfaced directly with their brains. They did not seem to notice the peculiar old men gawking at them.
“Quit staring!” Cal whispered, elbowing Ethan in the ribs. Ethan winced. “They’ll think we’re crazy.”
“I’d hate for that to happen,” Nick said, his voice muffled through the cotton of his sweatshirt, which was pulled inside out over his head, baring his thick, milky, cereal-laden gut for all to see.
“Put that down!” Cal yanked on the shirt, pulling a few of Nick’s red hairs off with it. One of the teens, who was examining a digital wristwatch, froze in place and carefully set it back on the shelf.
“Not you!” Cal said, waving at the teenagers. “Sorry!”
Ethan sat on the old church pew at the back of the shop, crossed one long leg over the other, and watched with eager anticipation. He was a lanky, stern, stoic-looking man. At first glance, you’d expect him to be the quiet, brooding type. In reality he was not quiet, but he was certainly brooding, and it took something special to make him smile. However, at this moment, he had a great big smirk on his lips, because on a list of his favorite activities, watching Cal interact with teenagers was number two, just behind dispensing unwanted medical advice.
“Better take a deep breath, Cal, I can see the veins in your forehead,” he said. “I don’t want to see you with a subconjunctival hemorrhage. That’s what killed my Uncle Jude.”
“Shove it,” Cal said.
Cal took a deep breath and watched the teenagers from a distance, waiting for the optimal time to make his move. Cal had made a pact with himself at an early age that he would never be like the old people he grew up with. That he would always make an effort to see things from the perspective of the younger generation. That he would try his best to keep up with trends and technologies, and to not fall into the useless oblivion of old routines. It turned out, however, that today’s teenagers were nothing like Cal imagined when he made that promise all those years ago. These teenagers were insufferable. Withholding judgment on them was like holding back urine after a night of drinking -- it got harder all the time, and once it started, it would be flowing like the Mississippi.
Ethan rubbed his hands together until dead skin sprinkled down from them like snow. He couldn’t wait to watch Cal’s judgment bladder burst.
Cal sauntered over to the stereo, an old Harman Kardon system he had wired himself. He kept an old Toshiba Satellite laptop on top of the speaker stack. It was hooked up to a two-terabyte external hard drive that contained his extensive and carefully organized collection of mp3s (all tagged with the proper metadata, all 320 kbps, all with the appropriate high-resolution album art). He scrolled through the listings, clicked play on his favorite band, leaned back on his tentpole elbows, and tried his best to look distant and disinterested.
“Question that noise,” one of the teenagers said, looking up from the Power Ranger action figure he was fondling. He was wearing the typical uniform of his age, unisex, brandless, grey cotton sweats cut into a tanktop and shorts. Such was the fashion of choice among hip people in the year 2061. In fact, most young people dressed so much alike that the best indications of their individuality came in their choice of bionic implants -- eyes, ears, hands, tongues -- they could all, for the cost of a cheap surgery, be switched out and replaced with newer, more interesting models. This teenager, for example, had bright yellow cat’s eyes in place of his God-given ones.
Cat’s Eye approached Cal. “What’s in a dizzy, programmer? You might go brain-on listening to this smog.”
Cal was bewildered. “Sorry?” he said.
“He’s asking you about the music!” Ethan called out, delighted.
“It’s LCD Soundsystem,” Cal said slowly. This garnered no response from the feline-faced kid in front of him. “You’ve never heard of LCD Soundsystem?” Cal cringed as he said it. He was acutely aware of his geezerly tone. “They’re...a very important band.”
“Question how you survived this long,” Cat’s Eye said, having moved on to perusing a basket of tangled ethernet and micro-USB cables marked at one dollar a piece. “Listening to walls-off smog, glassing glow screens all day, it’s a miracle you’re not all fried eggs.”
“Who you calling fried egg?” Nick said, careful not to topple the French Toast Crunch pieces he had stacked like a Jenga tower on the bridge of his nose.
Cal forced a smile. “What do you listen to? I’d love some recommendations.”
“Split it with you,” Cat’s Eye said. He waved his hand near his right ear, then near Cal’s ear. A wild look washed over him.
“You don’t have a Tön?” Cat’s eye said, astonished. He called to his friend, who was nose-deep in an old book. “Tembo, he doesn’t have a Tön.”
“Walls-off!” Tembo said, taking a big whiff.
Töns were remarkable communications devices that had replaced smart lenses, which had replaced smartphones. They were metallic objects about the size and shape of a kidney bean, worn in the ear. By vibrating at specific frequencies, the Tön was able to influence the neural patterns of the brain, creating precise sensory hallucinations. The Tön allowed for near-telepathic communication with other wearers, as well as exciting new virtual media experiences. Best of all, the Tön created an enhanced, personal sensory reality for each user, complete with targeted advertisements. An early press release for the Tön One put it best:
Your music from every speaker
your art on every wall
The smell of mom’s apple pie
instead of the bathroom stall.
“Can’t have one,” Cal said. “Doctor’s orders.”
This was only partly true. Cal did indeed have a psychiatric disorder, but he was diagnosed so long ago he had completely forgotten which one. The only direct effect it still had on his life was in the form of a big yellow pill he took every morning. Cal didn’t know if he still needed the pills, but, having no recollection of what life was like before he started on them, he decided it was too late to find out. When the Tön came on the market, Cal had asked his physician, Dr. Katz, if it was safe to get one.
“I’m no expert,” Dr. Katz said. “But you should probably be careful.”
And so Cal had never tried. But he was not usually one to take a flippant doctor’s advice so seriously. In truth, Cal didn’t have a Tön for the same reason most other people his age rejected them -- because music and media and advertisements were now hyper-targeted directly to people’s heads, so there was no need for them to exist in real, physical space. Since the Tön took over, the outside world had become increasingly peaceful and free of distractions. Billboards, which to a Tön user would shine with the trailer for the latest reality trip, appeared to Cal as blank white rectangles. Bars and restaurants that would formerly blare the grating and dissonant music which had overtaken the top forty were instead as serene as a lake on a still morning. It was an old person’s paradise. To be in touch with the culture of youth meant giving up this Eden, and though he wouldn’t admit it, that was something even Cal could not bring himself to do. So, Cal and his peers stuck to their smartphones, which one Chinese company continued to manufacture just for them.
“Oy,” Tembo called to Cat’s Eye. “Seen this?” He was holding up a white iPhone 4s.
“You be careful, that thing’s older than your parents.” Harry said.
Tembo held the phone to his ear, puffed out his chest, and put on an accent that was somewhere between Texas Southern and Cockney English. “Oy, I mean, Hello! I would like to place a collect call.” Tembo and Cat’s Eye started to giggle.
“Give it,” said Cat’s Eye, taking the phone from Tembo and holding it to his own ear. “Yes, hello, this is 911, what is your emergency,” he mocked.
“Wait, wait,” laughed Tembo, trying to take the phone back. “Thought up a good one, give it.”
“Wait,” Cat’s Eye said, not wanting to relinquish his turn.“Yes, I’d like one pepperoni pizza with extra pizza…”
Tembo swiped at Cat’s Eye, knocking the device from his hand. It smashed against the hardwood, and a large crack spidered across the glass. The sound shook Nick from his balance, sending the French Toast Crunch Jenga tower scattering across the floor.
“Dumbasses!” Harry screamed, nearly catapulting himself out of his rocking chair. “Get out of my shop!”
“Ain’t blame me you people made such crackable shit,” said Tembo.
The teenagers left, the door chime announcing their exit. Ethan looked at Cal expectantly.
“Say it,” Ethan said. “Say it. Come on. Say “Kids these days…”
“Fuck off,” Cal said instead. “One V one me. You get to use the wonky controller.”
You can read more of Ben's work, and contact him at his website sack.space