Pay Attention

by Sora Edwards-Thro


I remember the tightness in the doctor’s face as he explained why the medicine wasn’t working. But I remember the ride home better. I remember Dad’s hands tight and pale on the steering wheel. It was a self-driving model, and the wheel was only for emergencies, but maybe it was an emergency for him. After hearing my condition was untreatable, he must’ve wanted to control something.

Normally, he spent the rides clicking through his holoscreen, catching up on missed notices. I liked watching the way his eyes shifted when he was working, like fish darting around a tank. His eyes were happiest in their tank. Whenever they slid away from his work — whenever he looked at me — they got a desperate, clammy look to them: fish out of water.

I don’t want to remember his face and the lines around his eyes. His job was outrageously stressful, like everyone else’s, but he only looked really worried when he looked at me.

This is what’s wrong with me, the doctor says. I notice things like the lines around his eyes. I can’t help noticing them and being affected by them. I can’t help remembering them, instead of doing the sensible thing and moving on to the next task.

The diagnosis: Attention Excess Disorder, combined with Emotional Addiction. Attention Excess Disorder just means you’re bad at being distracted, that you can only pay attention to one thing at a time. The doctor said it would have been a good thing a hundred years ago, before computers got really good at focusing and people wouldn’t have to anymore.

The attention thing is just a side effect of my real problem: Emotional Addiction. Basically, I process events with what the doctor called an emotional bias. I’m too sensitive to them. Things touch me. I stop and linger over them, and I can never quite catch up.

“Time is money, son,” Dad told me on the ride back. “You’ve got to spend it wisely. You pay too much attention to things that are worthless. I mean, Arvo, just look at your efficiency levels...”

He shook his head. Then, he released the steering wheel, pulled up the holoscreen, and got back to work. He wasn’t sick like me, after all. He knew better than to waste time on things that didn’t matter.

* * *

I didn’t understand why the guy was so important, at first. His desk had only one holoscreen on it. Its screen was black, the first one I’d ever seen turned off. There were chairs everywhere, as if he was used to having visitors actually come to see him in person. The walls were covered with books and pictures that didn’t move.

I heard the door open behind me and realized too late that I shouldn’t have been looking around. Stupid people look around. Smart people are too busy updating their iChips.

“Why is your office in the shape of an oval?” I asked, trying to prove that I’d learned something useful from those moments of staring into space.

He slid into the chair behind the desk. “So you’re the boy. Arvo.”

I nodded quickly. Don’t waste his time. That’s what my father told me before I went in.

“I need you to focus,” he said slowly.

I blinked at him.

Focus? He had computers to do that for him. He literally had tons of computers. Very smart ones. I looked at him. He was wearing a real suit. Did he take the time to button those buttons and tie that tie, every single morning? He’d walked in carrying a briefcase. Did he still do some of his work on paper?

“You can’t be the President,” I said. “You’re almost as crazy as I am.” This is what my disorder does to me. It makes me blurt out silly things, just because I feel them strongly.

The President didn’t seem to mind being insulted. Of course he didn’t; he didn’t have my disease. He asked me what I’d dreamt the night before. People aren’t supposed to dream, or even sleep for longer than an hour at a time. I felt a blush creeping up my face as I told him that I’d dreamt my dad shook my hand and told me I was smarter than a computer.

The President leaned forward. “Interesting. How could you be smarter than a computer?”

Interesting. I’d never heard anyone say the word out loud before.

So I told him about the only book I owned. Well, it was actually just a scrap that had been torn out of something larger. It was full of old words, words no one uses anymore, and they all started with I. One was Inspiration. It’s when you think of something nobody’s ever thought of before. I thought maybe it was one thing people could do better than computers.

The President didn’t even get impatient about my long explanation. Another I-word. Apparently it’s the opposite of a thing called patient. He pulled a huge book off one of the shelves and said it was called a dictionary, and my book must have been part of one because it had words and definitions from the whole alphabet. I tried to take it, but it was too heavy.

“Wow,” I said, before I could stop myself. I asked the President how people had used it. It was much too big to carry around. He said that maybe they remembered words and looked them up when they got the chance. I said it sounded like a lot of work just to learn a meaning.

“Can I ask you something?” I said. “It might make you mad.”

“Normal people don’t get mad,” the President said.

Right, he was a normal person. The dictionary had made me forget. Anyway, I asked him why people bother to elect a president anyway. “Everyone knows that computers make the decisions, and you just press the buttons.”

“Being a president is a very hard job,” he said.

“Harder than my dad’s job?”

“Definitely.”

He explained that yes, it is just pressing buttons, but people like to know there’s a person pressing the buttons. They trust computers with most things, but really big things, they like to know that someone who can feel is doing it. Normally, feelings get in the way of your job, but for the really big things people like to know you have them.

I was about to ask the President what he meant by really big things, when he asked, “Can I tell you a secret?”

I nodded.

He leaned forward, so far that I could see the top of his head had less hair than the front. He told me, in a whisper, that sometimes even presidents need help with their jobs. And he asked me if I could help him.

If I’d thought about it, I would’ve known it was a bad idea. But I hadn’t had much practice thinking yet. And he said he’d pay me. He showed me a number. A side effect of my condition is an overactive imagination. But even I couldn’t have imagined that many zeroes.

* * *

I thought it was the easiest job in the world, at first. Once a week a silver circle with a hole in the middle arrived at my door. They said it wasn’t safe to send it through the Net, even though that would have been much more convenient.

Before I started the job, they had me get some neural implants, which is what people get when they want their brains to be able to upload and download information just like computers. Dad was excited about it. He thought maybe they’d make me normal. But these were special implants. They were supposed to process feelings and memories.

I fed the disk into something called a converter, and the information on it got downloaded to the implant in my head. They had told me it wouldn’t hurt, and it didn’t. They said they couldn’t make any promises after that, though. They said it was different for everyone.

I was one of the lucky ones. I just got nightmares. At first they were really disturbing, but then they gave me this thing they called a library card. They said the others needed help to cope sometimes. Having a library card meant I had permission to do insane things, like read old books.

A long time ago, everyone had Emotional Addiction, and so reading what they’d written was supposed to be helpful. From the books I learned about monsters from other people’s heads, and they eventually crept into my nightmares; and then falling asleep wasn’t so terrifying, because at least the nightmares were familiar. I dreamed of vampires the most.

Then, suddenly, the nightmares started changing. They became real people. I told the President I couldn’t stand it: the screaming, dying, begging for mercy. He said the computers had told him the attacks were necessary. I would have to try harder.

The monsters saved me again. Before there was medication to treat emotions, people had to fight their monsters themselves. They used things called crosses to stop vampires. That’s why I visited the crumbling church building. I needed a weapon.

* * *

“I didn’t expect to see anyone else here. Ever.”

I jumped. A girl was sitting next to me. A girl with dark hair and blocky glasses. I’d never seen anyone wear glasses before.

“You’ve been coming here for, what, a week now? I pay attention to these things.” She bent closer. “What’s wrong?”

“I have this disease,” I said, pulling out my library card, ready to explain myself.

She laughed, and shook her head. “I didn’t ask what’s wrong with you. I asked what’s wrong. What are you praying for?”

I stood up. “I should be alone to pray. I’ll find somewhere else.”

She stood up, too. “You’re not alone. You’ve got his thoughts inside of you, and praying’s not going to make them go away.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I bent down to gather my things.

She laid a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a Processor. I am, too.” She had this look on her face, as if I was an answer to her own prayers. I’d never mattered to someone like that before.

* * *

Her name was Crystal. She wouldn’t tell me who she worked for, but whoever it was, I hoped they were grateful: she was really good. She was only a few years older than me but it seemed like she had a lifetime more experience. She knew everything, including why my nightmares were changing.

“It’s just because you’re growing up,” she said. She explained that when you’re a little kid the monsters are little too. As you get older, they get stronger. You have to make sure you get stronger, too.

“You’re an interesting case,” she added. “They don’t generally do this to kids. Your client is much older than you, and his monsters are too, but you managed to keep them child-size up until now.” She smiled. “Maybe you’re not as bad at this as I thought.”

I realize now that it was strange she knew how old my client was, when I’d never told her. But I didn’t realize it back then. Maybe it was nice to see her smile and tell me I’d done a good job. Or to hear her get angry about what they’d done to me. As always, I let my emotions get in the way of my work.

She had this list of what she called Rules for Survival. Number Three was: “Always be stronger than your client’s monsters.” She warned me that they would get worse. She said she would help me.

I’d tell her about the nightmares I had, and she’d say she was sorry, even though it wasn’t her fault. She’d hug me, and I’d smell her freshness. I joked to her that she took too many baths. She said she did her client’s best thinking in the shower.

I had to tell the President about my nightmares too. It was part of the job. We sat across a table from each other. He didn’t say he was sorry, even though it was his fault. He just sat there, like a statue from one of the parks Crystal and I often walked through. He didn’t hug me. If he had hugged me I think he would have smelled like blood.

I asked Crystal once if maybe instead of talking about the nightmares, he’d be interested in hearing about the poems I was reading, or the conversations I had with her. The things I did to battle the monsters.

That was when she explained Rule Number Two. “Your dad said time is money. Well, tell him dreams are money too. We pay a price. For their wars. And for their peace.”

She said he didn’t want to hear about what I had to do. He just wanted me to do it. He was paying me to do it for him.

“Also, you probably shouldn’t tell him about me. He’ll try to get rid of me, or something.”

That was the last conversation we ever had. The next day, she was gone.

I tried to survive, for a while, but it didn’t work. Her voice joined the screaming chorus in my dreams. It narrated the books I read. The Rules say you need to be stronger than your client’s monsters. What about my monsters?

I need her. I need her to tell me what Rule Number One is, because Rule Number Two says I’m supposed to pay a price, but all of a sudden the price is too high.

* * *

“‘I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll.’ Edna St. Vincent Millay said that in a poem,” I begin.

The President leans back in his chair, his face falling into shadow. “And?”

“This is how it ends: ‘Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Brother, the password’...”

“‘Password’ was a word before computers were invented?” the President interrupts. He’s letting himself be distracted; he’s got a normal, healthy mind after all. I’m the insane one here.

No. I think of Crystal.

“It’s a poem about how our first loyalty should be to life,” I continue.

“This is about that girl,” he spits.

“This is about all of the ones who have died,” I say softly, but my voice shakes.

He shakes his head. “You cared about her.”

I grip the edge of the table. “She taught me how to care.”

He looms in, leaning across the table. “Crystal was an enemy agent. They said it was right to get rid of her.”

He’s so close I can see my terrified face in his pupils. I hope he can see his blazing face in mine, that he’ll realize he’s getting too close, and calm down, and listen.

But I’m the one who listens. I read the poems, take the walks, have the dreams. That’s what he pays me for.

“You think I’m killing them because I don’t care?”

His breath is hot on my face; his skin is a red haze filling my vision. He has become one of my monsters.

And that’s when I have my inspiration. I stand up.

He’s not the monster. I am. I’m the vampire. I take the feelings from him. I suck the blood out of the wars, until they’re just instructions on a computer screen. That’s what they pay me for.

I glance down at the President. I put a hand on his shoulder. It’s what Crystal would do.

She would love this, a client feeling for himself. Right now it’s only anger, maybe one day they’ll all realize the cost of the wars and the nightmares... and start paying attention.

All my life I’ve wanted to be normal, to keep up with everyone else. But our loyalty should be to life. Real life. With all its inconveniences.

This is the Number One Rule of Survival: surviving is never enough. You’ve got to learn how to live.


Copyright © 2013 by Sora Edwards-Thro

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