The Root of All Distraction: A Short Story
SARAH GRACE VILLARREAL

“Just had to finish up that call, so what were we talking about?” Don said to Carla as he walked into the conference room. Carla had been waiting for about fifteen minutes of their weekly scheduled meeting.

Carla nodded. “Well as you can see, our impressions have started to drop over this past week.” Carla had already set up and gone over her slides three times by that point. Don leaned closer towards the projection, fist under his chin, feigning interest. Carla tried not to roll her eyes. She knew he didn’t care, nor did he really understand what she was presenting to him.

“Well, I think we need to move on to a different strategy. And I definitely think it’s time to call in the SEO experts to do an eval of our website.” Carla looked over to see Don’s reaction and noticed him replying to a text he had just received. Not anything new — this was his M.O. in meetings — but for some reason today it particularly perturbed her. She went silent and waited for him to finish.

Someone on Their Phone

Don sent his text and looked up to find Carla staring at him. “Oh you can keep going, I’m listening,” he said, resuming his position of false interest.

“This is really important, Don, I just want to make sure you’re not missing anything.” Carla could hear her voice turn icy. She knew Don would ignore it, or not notice a difference in tone at all.

“I can multitask, Carla. You can keep going.” She took a deep breath and continued her presentation. 

No Likes

Carla didn’t dream of a social media marketing career when she was a child. Her job didn’t exist until just a few years ago. But that’s the position she got after she graduated and that’s where she stayed. A wave of nostalgia hit Carla as she got back to her desk after her meeting with Don. Maybe it was because her thirtieth birthday was fast approaching or the fact that Don’s uninterested air for the millionth meeting had stirred some deeply buried memories of childhood neglect. She felt herself longing for warm summer days in her grandfather’s backyard.

Carla decided not to let her frustrating morning bother her. She met her friend Jen for lunch at their favorite Thai restaurant. Carla’s mood brightened as soon as she walked in and smelled the spices wafting through the air.

Jen and Carla sat in a booth near a window. Normally Carla would take the seat facing the window because she loved looking at the people passing outside, but today she didn’t want to ruin her mood by accidentally seeing someone like Don. Jen, her normal bubbly self, went on and on about this new guy she was dating. Carla couldn’t stop thinking about her interaction with Don. In a lull in the conversation, Carla started to say something about it, but then she noticed Jen checking her phone in between bites of her pad woon sen. She recalled the nostalgia she had felt earlier.

“Remember summer of fifth grade? When we didn’t go to camp because you didn’t get registered in time and I begged my parents not to send me without you?” Carla smiled, remembering the fit she through, a fit she was entirely too old to throw.

“God, you were such a brat back then,” Jen added with a laugh, “but yes, of course! I loved spending every day with your grandpa. It was like our own exclusive summer camp.”

“Wood work, gardening, raising chickens. It kind of was like summer camp, I guess,” Carla added, right before taking a bite of her curry.

“Yeah, except with way more television than we would’ve ever gotten at camp,” Jen said, and then turned her attention back to her phone.

Texting

Carla’s smile faded. She quickly looked down at her curry and pretended to be way more consumed with her next bite of food so as to not betray any anger at Jen’s quick fingers tapping on her illuminated screen.

The rest of the day was the same. It seemed anytime someone looked distracted by their phone or pulled up Facebook on their work computer she got a little angrier. She reminded herself that is the way the world works, but she felt her irritation growing and growing.

That night as she and her husband Josh made dinner, she vented. And she vented hard.

“It’s just infuriating. I mean, whatever, Don’s a dick anyway, but Jen? Really? I felt like I was fighting for her attention the whole time.” Carla’s voice crescendoed in pitch and volume as she told Josh.

“Maybe she was texting that new guy she was dating. You know how it is,” Josh said, as he loaded the lasagna on to the first plate.

“Yeah, but when we first started dating we both kept our phones put away. We still do.” Carla placed their glasses on the table expecting Josh to respond. When he didn’t, she added, “right?”

 “Huh?” Josh said as he walk towards the table, both plates in his hands.

“We put our phones away now, and we did even when we first started dating, right? I mean does everyone have to constantly distract themselves from the world around them?” Carla looked up into Josh’s face.

“Yeah,” Josh said with a shrug. Then suddenly he burst out, “yes! That’s the way you do it!”

Carla gently grabbed his chin and moved his face to the side revealing a wireless earbud in his ear. “You’re kidding me! What are you listening to?”

“The game!” Josh said as he swatted her hand away playfully. “It’s game four!”

“Why didn’t you just put it on the TV?” Carla asked, exasperated.

“You’re upset. I thought it’d be better if I just listened during dinner.” Josh’s face looked genuinely confused.

Carla grunted, rubbed her face, and looked down at her lasagna, defeated. “Just put it on. God, you make me sound like a monster. It’s game four, I get it.”

Josh got up quickly and turned the TV on.

Carla chugged her wine. Then poured a second glass.

Airpods

The next morning she awoke with a start to the loudest alarm clock bells she had ever heard.

“What the hell, Josh?” She nudged him. “Turn off your alarm.” She tried to roll over and cover her ears.

Josh groggily turned to the nightstand to turn it off, then got up to switch on the lights. Carla was still covering her head with her pillow. With a muffled voice she said, “why did you put that awful alarm on your phone?”

Josh laughed. “What are you talking about?”

“That’s not your usual alarm sound. It’s usually those soft birds or whatever,” she said through the pillow.

“Are you still asleep? You’re talking nonsense.” Josh giggled as he walked into their bathroom.

“Talking nonsense?” Carla said to herself. What was with Josh this morning? She sat up, now wide awake. She reached for her phone on her nightstand but it wasn’t there. She was sure she had plugged it in last night, like she always did.

Amazon Echo Dot on Stack of Books

“Hey Josh, have you seen my phone?” Carla yelled towards the bathroom. Josh didn’t answer. He was singing loudly in the shower. Slipping her slippers on she made her way to the living room to see if she had left it in her purse, but no luck. She noticed the sun starting to come up. Frustrated, she began searching the couch cushions for her phone. She called out, “Hey Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”  No answer came.

“Hey, Alexa,” she said loudly. Still nothing. Again she tried, “Hey, Alexa,” this time even louder. “ALEXA!” she yelled, and then threw a throw pillow down hard on her couch.

At the third “hey, Alexa,” Josh came into the living room, still toweling off. “Honey, what’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Alexa’s not working, and I can’t find my phone!” Carla said, red-faced.

Josh stared at her as if she had suddenly grown a second head. “Who’s Alexa?”

“What?” Carla had really hoped today would be better than yesterday. “Alexa, the thing, the speaker!” She couldn’t find her words she was so frustrated.

Josh just shook his head, unable to comprehend.

“You know what, never mind, have you seen my phone?” She went back to looking in the living room furniture.

“You mean, our phone? It’s right there,” Josh said, pointing at the wall.

“Oh my gosh, Josh, whatever, I pay the phone bill too.” She straightened up and looked in the direction he pointed. That’s when she noticed a landline attached to the wall, with one of those long, curly extension cords.

Vintage Wall Phone

“What the hell?” Carla’s eyes grew wide. “When did that get there?”

Josh went up to her and felt her head with the back of his hand. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Not really,” Carla said, still staring at the antique phone. “What time is it?”

Josh turned around to the kitchen. “It’s 7:15,” he said.

Carla followed his gaze to the kitchen wall. There above the sink hung a large red wall clock. “When did you get a clock?”

“I didn’t. You did when we moved in, remember?” Josh said.

“No, I definitely did not. We don’t need clocks. We have our phones and Alexa,” Carla said.

“Who’s Alexa?” Josh asked, both frustrated and concerned.

Carla looked at Josh. “It’s like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” she thought to herself.

“You know what, never mind. This isn’t funny. I need to get to work.” Carla patted Josh on the chest and went to the bathroom.

By the time Carla had gotten to work she had decided Josh must be playing an out-of-character prank on her, or she had hit her head before bed last night. Something wasn’t right.

Trisha, the office manager, grabbed the elevator at the same time Carla did. 

“How’s your morning going?” Trisha asked.

“It’s been weird. I think my husband’s pranking me or something,” Carla said. “And I couldn’t find my phone this morning.”

“Oh that is weird,” Trisha said, “Part of the prank?”

“I guess. Actually, could you call my phone? Maybe it got lost in my work bag, or I left it on my desk or something.” Carla turned to Trisha, who was giving her the same look that Josh had given her this morning. “What?” Carla asked.

“Wait, like your office phone or your home phone?” Trisha asked, clearly confused.

“My cell phone, Trisha.” Carla said, now worried for Trisha.

“What’s a cell phone?” Trisha asked.

A cold chill ran up Carla’s spine. But then she laughed. “Shut up! That’s not funny.” She exited the elevator and walked to her desk, still chuckling.  Trisha just stared at her.

Vintage Elevator Numbers

Carla set her stuff on her desk, grabbed her office coffee cup, and made her way to the kitchen. But she stopped and turned around, because she realized a typewriter sat on her desk where her computer used to be. She opened her mouth to scream but stopped. She said aloud, “What’s happening?” Then she walked purposefully to Don’s office.

“Very funny Don, where’s my computer?” Carla said, not amused at all.

Don looked up from some papers. “Your what?”

“Why is there a typewriter on my desk?” Carla asked.

“Because that’s how you do your work. Are you feeling okay?” Don asked.

She realized Don didn’t have his laptop either, nor his ridiculously wide monitor.

“Actually, I think I just need to get some fresh air,” she said, backing out of his office door. Her pace continued to accelerate as she passed the desks in the open office until she reached the elevator. She pressed the button a few times, and when it didn’t immediately arrive, she hurried to the stairwell. Once she got outside of the building she took a few deep breaths and started to walk down the street.

She suddenly noticed that everyone around her had their heads up, looking where they walked. No one was hunched over looking at a phone. Was this a dream? Her head was spinning. “Where are all the phones?” she thought to herself as she watched people walk up and down the street. She noticed a mother and a child holding hands and pointing at different objects. She watched a couple walk arm in arm and smile at each other after they stepped on a discarded piece of doughnut on the ground. She watched a man who looked like he was in a hurry stop and give money to a man sitting on the bench on the corner. She needed to talk to someone about what was going on.

After finding a phonebook (a phonebook!) in her desk drawer, she located Jen’s office number and counted the hours until their quickly scheduled lunch. At lunch, Carla spilled everything.

“I went to bed and the Internet existed and then I woke up and suddenly we have landlines again.” She nervously sipped some of her water.

“I have so many questions. Like what is the Internet?” Jen asked.

“It’s a network of all the computers…” Carla noticed Jen’s eyes begin to glaze over. “You know what, it’s complicated, but essentially we used the Internet and tech to stay connected and to plan our day and run our businesses and now it’s just all gone.”

“Maybe you just got caught up in a wildly realistic dream or something.” Jen said.

Carla really couldn’t blame her, but Jen’s response felt a bit patronizing and it was making her uncomfortable. She decided to change the subject.

Carla rubbed her forehead, “My job used to revolve around the Internet, or at least in the dream or whatever. I’m not totally sure but I think I’m a secretary now.”

“Well, kind of, Don said you could write the press releases half the time and be the office secretary the other half. You complain about it all the time,” Jen said, absentmindedly watching a man in a green jacket walk down the street through the window.

Cafe from a Bird's Eye View

“Do I complain that often?” Carla asked, fighting her frustration at Jen’s preoccupation with the people outside.

“About your job, yes,” Jen said turning back to Carla.

“Not about everything?”

“You want me to be honest?” Jen asked.

Carla nodded, knowing full well the answer but also knowing she didn’t really want to hear it.

“You complain a lot. About everything. I guess we all do, if you think about it. None of us are really happy,” Jen said, taking a sip and staring out the window again.

Carla went about her day trying her best not to betray how alien she felt. She still hadn’t figured out the typewriter, nor had she realized how much she had relied on spell check. She relished the one press release she typed up that day and found herself longing for the life she had yesterday.

Before the day ended, she sat down with Don to go over the press release.

“I want to make sure I got all of the major details about the community program in before I send it off,” Carla said as she sat down in the conference room. Don nodded his head as she handed him a copy of her typed press release.

“Looks good,” Don said, having only skimmed it.

“Well I have our kickoff date and time, but I wanted to make sure…” but Carla was interrupted by a half-knock on the conference room door, and then Luis walked in, telling Don he needed his signature on some forms.

“I’m sorry Luis, but we’re in a meeting right now,” Carla said, annoyed.

“No, it’s alright, we’re pretty much finished,” Don said.

“We just started,” Carla said, realizing her voice had risen.

But Don had already gotten up. “It looks good, Carla. Send it out.” He walked out with Luis.

Carla sat in the conference room for a bit replaying what had just happened. She realized she had been half-hoping that the disappearance of the smartphones and buzzing notifications would have had some magic effect on her interactions throughout the day, but it looked like this was not the case.

Empty Conference Room

At dinner, Josh poured wine, while Carla served their chicken parmesan. They actually used one of their cookbooks they had received for their wedding to find the recipe. Carla didn’t open up about her strange day. Part of her still hoped this was an elaborate prank orchestrated by Josh, or maybe a terrible dream. She decide to focus on the positive. “I wrote a press release today about a new community program we’re starting at work.”

“That’s great, honey! Do you think he’ll let you join the marketing department soon?” Josh asked as he began to dig into his dinner.

“Honestly, I don’t think so. It might be time for me to look for a new job.” She took a sip of her wine. “This is good, what is it?”

Josh, thoroughly invested in his meal, gave a slight shrug, and continued eating.

Carla shook her head a little at Josh’s preoccupation. She thought back to yesterday and the game and his earbud.

The live video of feed of Carla at her dinner table played on one screen in a sterile white room. Through an adjacent window, Carla could be seen sitting in a chair, her hair cropped short, goggles with screens strapped to her face, wires attached all over her body.

“She’s bought into the tech-less world,” Agent Wilde said to one of the researchers looking at the screen.

“Perhaps,” said the researcher, “but I spoke with Dr. Charles and he said he wanted to keep it running a bit longer to see if it lasts.”

“Very well, but we can’t keep the Chancellor waiting,” Agent Wilde said. “You have two more days and then we’re going to move ahead with Phase One real world tech removal.” Agent Wilde turned and walked out the door. The researcher looked at the screen and then to the wire that enveloped Carla, feeling a twinge of guilt.


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