The smart phone was not that smart.
It was a fatuous noise box of gloom. It blinked, booped, and buzzed. It flashed and it dimmed. It told her the news. And the news was never good.
The stories were always the same: The government was broken, and mayhem was rife. Villains stalked the earth and no one opposed them anymore.
Wars never ended. They mowed down generations and no one knew why. When the girl closed her eyes, she could see them behind her lids, fields of dying multitudes ushering in an eternal night.
The more she looked at her coffin of a phone, the worse she felt. Her head buzzed. Her vision blurred. Walls leaned toward her like twin edifices verging on collapse. The air grew so thick around her, she would surely suffocate if she did not get fresh air—soon.
With rising panic, she dashed to the front door for air but hesitated to open it, lest a hoard of malevolent phantoms pour into the house.
When she finally did open the door, she was stunned. There were no bodies in the street. No armies declaring marshal law. No villains blasting guns. No corrupt lobbyists buying elections. No maelstroms portending the end of human history.
No. It was a clear day—a sleepy summer late afternoon. A tender breeze grazed her bare arms. The sun slid its tongue across her cheeks. The perfume of lilacs tickled her nose. Birds were singing. They chirped and whistled and crooned.
Shadows shivered calmly on the road following the windy movements of the pine branches above. The wind made the sound a pillow would make if a pillow could speak.
Conditioned for horror by her phone, she had expected streets shrouded in an eerie fog, an early night that would never end, hordes of gun-men, or malign armies pouring into her front yard from a tainted dimension.
Yet here she was. Which world was real? Sun-warmed and wind-kissed, she was loath to go back inside where her phone was lurking. But when she finally did re-enter, she was again surprised.
Her house looked different than it had only seconds ago. It was cleaner and better lit than she remembered. There were no bodies there either. No villains. No bombs.
A cursory stroll through the kitchen revealed that, even if the apocalypse had come, there was enough food in the refrigerator to last her for months.
Turning her head, she caught her phone blinking ominously on the living room sofa. Strange how such a tiny device could be the entryway into such a mental hellscape. She looked away and felt instantly calmer.
She marveled at the way she could create or destroy reality merely by shifting her gaze from her phone, by choosing what would fill her vision and what would not.
She strolled through the house, taking in only what she wanted to see. A picture of a sailboat on the wall. A recliner. A sofa. Furniture that looked so stable it would surely be there for eternity.
She wanted to stay in that place of calm forever. But to avoid her phone was to live in denial. The imperiled world needed her. What exactly did it need? Her attention. It needed her attention. Even if the world destroyed itself, she had a moral obligation to lend her eyes to the debacle until the bitter end.
Or did she? What if the information overload of horrors was only hurting her and helping no one?
How soothing it would feel to simply turn away. “Reality is whatever I focus on,” she told herself. “If I read a novel, that—for a time—becomes my world. If I gaze at the night sky, then my reality is the stars. If I focus on a drawing of a sailboat, I fall into its hull. And if I open the window, my world is swaying tree shadows and songbirds.”
Strange how, all her life, the world had been screaming for her attention. Advertisers paid vast amounts of money for it. Celebrities invaded her vision from every screen. Politicians bombed her ears with promises.
The whole of society, it seemed, was trying to direct her gaze: to sell to her, to outrage her, to solve problems she had never known she had. Her attention had meant so much to others. Why had it always meant so little to her?
She shoved her phone beneath one of the couch cushions and opened her curtains wide so the receding light of day could fall inside.
Her phone buzzed and blipped. A notification had arrived. She shut her eyes.
One day maybe she would look. But today she wanted to see the world she had lost. The one with the lilacs and clear skies and tree shadows that moved, so subtly, when the trees did.
Such calm could not last. Her furniture, by looking so still and immovable, was lying to her. One day none of it would be there anymore.
But when she sat down, her couch supported her weight. She glanced out her window at the fading sun. Right then, nothing in the world seemed more moving to her, nothing more poignant that the late summer leaves shivering in the last lingering light of day.
She shut her eyes. Opened them. Shut her eyes again. On. Off. Night. Day. What contrast. What beauty.