The following is a piece of short fiction.
He decides to check his feed on that one website. He is already logged in, is perpetually logged in, so he does not log in now but types the first letter of the website’s name and his browser suggests the site’s full URL without pretense. In the corner of the coffee shop opposite his corner two women sit, mumbling words to each other, fiddling with their phones, looking down. He counts one, two, three, four, five people on laptops, two of them engaging in video calls, ostensibly not with each other. Three tablets, all connected. A man on the couch across from the fireplace, asleep, a paper magazine open on his chest like a miracle.
The website loads. His fingers are numb—not all of them, but the thumb and middle finger-through-pinky on his right hand. He shakes the hand, slaps it lightly on the table. He knows this hand well; it has a way of falling asleep when least convenient. The fingers don’t tingle or prickle, so he places them back on the keyboard—movement will trigger the blood flow back to the extremities.
And of course the first thing he would see on the screen would be that douchebag Bryan from Elleridge. GUESS WHO JUST BOUGHT A TUNDRA BITCHES!!!!
He and Bryan met only that one time before at that concert in Elleridge where the Flaming Blowhards opened for Crystal Seven. He didn’t like Bryan, but Vanessa knew him from high school or something and so they pretty much spent the entire concert hanging out, he and Vanessa and Bryan and Bryan’s girlfriend. The next day he accepted Bryan’s request of friendship and has since regretted the decision wholly. He clicks now the little upward-facing thumb under the Tundra announcement, giving it his approval, remembering why he hates Bryan.
A little chat box pops up on the side of his screen with a message. From Vanessa: Mark?
He ignores it. He scrolls down the newsless newsfeed.
Anne DeMar is pregnant.
Jen Gorant is pregnant again. Oh and today is her eighteenth birthday, so good for her. He types a happy birthday message on her virtual wall.
The thing with Bryan was he was totally after Vanessa. It was obvious Leilani knew it too, which is why there was so much tension at that concert that night. The whole thing was uncomfortable and he regretted even bothering to go out, something he rarely did—go out, that is—unless of course it was to this shop, in which case he went out often. The whole experience of seeing two bands he was really into at the time was abysmal and he hasn’t listened to either group since, although he still Likes both their pages.
He navigates away from the newsfeed for now and clicks on his profile picture. He’s been meaning to change it and has the perfect picture sitting, waiting, on his desktop, ready to become the digital representation of his physical presence. He clicks the option to change the picture. His fingers, the ones that were numb, have started hurting. It isn’t that tingly or prickly pain he was expecting though—it’s this throbbingly dull pressure. He slaps the hand against the table again but hardly feels the slapping in the affected fingers. Now his hand throbs more from all the slapping, but they’re working fine. With them he picks up his coffee, and he sips.
His drink of choice today is an Americano with steamed heavy cream. He can feel the heat behind the cup’s paper in his hand. He can feel the heat on his tongue. A long time ago, when he first started drinking these, the particular barista who recommended the drink tried to charge him extra.
“I’ll have an Americano.”
“Room for cream?”
“Um, sure. Wait . . . I don’t know. Is that, would that be good? What’s an Americano, actually?”
He’s on his second date with Vanessa and is trying to impress her with his ordering of sophisticated caffè.
“It’s an espresso diluted with hot water.”
“Expresso . . . diluted?”
“I suppose diluted’s the wrong word. The hot water pulls out the flavor, gives it a more robust profile. It’s good.”
“Room for cream?”
He doesn’t know.
Vanessa is staring at him.
“Heavy cream is good with it.”
“Do you want the cream steamed? It makes it taste like roasted almonds.”
“Okay, great! That’ll be ———.”
“But the menu says ———.”
“Well, yes, but with the steamed heavy cream it’s technically more like a caffe misto, which costs ———.”
“What? I don’t even see a misto on the menu.”
“It’s, well, I have a button for it here. On the register. It’s ———.”
“You have got to be bullshitting me. You have cream over there. By the window. For free!”
The drink did taste like roasted almonds and still does every time. Barbara was the name of the barista who introduced the drink to him. She doesn’t work here any more. They’re still friends, but he hasn’t checked up on her in months, and he doesn’t recall seeing any updates pop up in his feed. He’ll check her page in a minute; but first, the picture.
The old profile picture shows him at his worst, after a night of heavy drinking last year: his hair blonde and cut in a buzz, cheeks red and dry from the consumption of so much alcohol, puffy and thick with drunkenness, chin sagging a little (he put on weight that first year of college), eyes veiny. Despite all that, he’s smiling in the picture, and his joviality is obvious—that’s why he used the picture in the first place. He left it there for three years. He seldom lets people take pictures of him.
But he’s graduating next month, and the job search has already begun, so it’s important that his picture be professional and accurate, a representation of the true physical self that he is now. He locates the new picture on the desktop. He clicks it. It opens in a viewer application.
The message from Vanessa flashes again at the side of his web browser: You there?
He clicks Vanessa’s name, bringing up her profile page, removes her from his list of friends, wondering why he didn’t do that a long time ago. He’s expecting relief or catharsis or something, but he feels only the return of the pain in his hand.
The new picture is one that he explicitly prepared for the snapping of. He combed his hair, now longer than in the first picture but still blond, held back by a generous helping of mousse. He wears in the new picture a dark grey dress shirt that he wishes he could have afforded to have tailored because it’s slightly large. The striped tie in the picture matches the shirt. He shaved for the shot, and he trimmed the remaining beard so that it traced the frame of his face from temples to chin in a thin blond line. He used a good digital camera to take the picture, borrowed from a friend (he doesn’t own a smartphone with its own high-tech camera because he can’t afford the monthly bill). He went to the tree outside his campus apartment and stood in front of the tree and held the camera out in front of him with his arm stretched forward.
His fingers hurt something fierce now, and they’re starting to discolor. The fingers on both hands hurt. His right hand is worse, almost unbearably so, but the left is starting to throb noticeably. He admires the self-portrait. You there? Mark? You there?
Closing the simple photo-viewer application, he reopens the file with his favorite piece of image-manipulation software. Here, in this program, he is a sort of god. He can see the whole of the picture’s color palette. RGB. He can change the colors at will—a click of a button here, an adjustment to a slider there, and suddenly the picture has lost all hue, suddenly it’s black and white and the blondness of his hair doesn’t matter; and with another swipe on the laptop’s giant trackpad he bumps up the contrast twenty-five percent and pauses to examine his work.
He has to bring some of the color back. It needn’t be everywhere, but a highlight or two will be great, will make his picture different from the rest, from the average profile pictures of his friends. He needs to add color to the shades of grey. Out of the corner of his eye he catches his right pinky and wonders if it’s actually black or if that’s just a trick of the laptop screen’s light imprinted on his retinas.
With another click and drag, this time on the image itself, he selects the necktie. It’ll look good in red.
He can easily adjust the slider on the software’s color wheel back and forth until he finds just the shade of red he wanted, but it’s his favorite red that he’s going to use, and he uses it often. So often in fact does he use it that he’s memorized its HTML color code a long time ago. He types the code now in the little white text box above the color wheel: #B40404. The wheel adjusted automagically while the tie shifts hue. #B40404 is this dark, deep shade of red, a sort of burgundy, almost like the color of blood or one of the brighter varieties of red wine. It really makes the tie pop from the rest of the picture. POP.
A weird thing happens next in that the pinky finger on his right hand falls off the hand. It happens without ceremony or warning, although in retrospect the pain he’s been feeling for the last half-hour might be considered by some to have been fair warning that something was wrong with his extremities. Oddly, though, the right hand doesn’t hurt any more—the left still does and is getting worse—and he can’t feel anything at all at the stub where his finger has all his life been until just now. No pain, no numbness, no sensation of any kind. The pinky finger lies on the table next to his laptop’s silver body. He can smell the rotting flesh. He does not cry out but only stares. He should probably call an ambulance, but he isn’t done with the picture yet.
Black and white and now just a little red. But it isn’t right just yet. That red needs balance. It needs to be somewhere else in the picture too, not just on his tie. But where? He pinches the trackpad with his thumb and forefinger, the absence of his pinky hardly noticeable, zooming the picture. It occurs to him that he probably doesn’t actually need a pinky. So he’ll have trouble reaching the DELETE key, so what? There— He can add that same red to a few of the bricks of the dorm building that make up the background of the photo. Zoomed out, it will be barely noticeable, but the subconscious effect would make all the difference in the world. He selects an individual brick. #B40404. Another brick near the corner. #B40404. Another near his shoulder. #B40404. A group of five bricks together. #B40404. His right ring finger falls off in stages over a period of three seconds. One segment per second. The distal phalanx. The middle phalanx. The proximal phalanx.
Three pieces of finger on his keyboard. One on the table. His left hand no longer hurts. He looks around the coffee shop. People are talking, drinking, eating, studying.
So, okay, yes, he’s technically down two digits, but he can still pinch-to-zoom without his ring finger and pinky. The picture looks good with the red highlights. He switches back to the browser. The browser is still on that one website. Are you there Mark? We need to talk.
The chat window flashes at him, pestering him for his attention like a child. Did the unfriend request not go through? He clicks the X. The chat window closes.
On his profile page he moves the cursor, using his index finger, to his current profile picture, the one with the buzz cut and the larger him from the past. A button appears at the bottom of the image. CHANGE PROFILE PICTURE. Click.
An upload screen. Drag file here. The pinky on the left hand goes now too. It brakes off with a snap and crumbles into a fine black-green powder when it hits the table. For a brief moment, he wonders if the dust will get under the keyboard and mess with the innards of his computer. Is it like sand? He’s heard sand can damage a computer’s delicate components if one took it to the the beach or something. Obviously there’s a problem here, what with the fingers falling off, three of them now, but he’s worked so hard on this picture, and it will take only a few seconds to complete the upload. Drag file here.
He selects the .jpg on the desktop and with a double tap on the increasingly large trackpad selects it for dragging. He drags it over the browser window until a plus sign appears, informing him that this, this right here, this is the spot where he is to release the file if he wants it to successfully upload to his account. He clicks. The file is released. A progress bar replaces the plus sign and begins to lengthen, indicating the upload in progress.
Three percent. Seven. Twelve.
He grabs the Americano with his left hand. The gripping of things without a pinky feels weird and incomplete.
Nineteen percent. The coffee shop’s wifi is notorious for it’s slowness, especially when the shop is occupied by so many people who are obviously using it. But he prefers to use the internet that’s offered here rather than the wifi included with campus housing because on campus there are too many people. There are people here, too, of course, but he does not know them. Here he can be alone in public. Thirty-four percent and his left middle finger falls.
He picks it up—it’s still intact. He holds it high and speaks into the air. “Hey, guys, this is my finger. It fell off.” The buzz of conversation and the crackling of the fireplace and the hissing of espresso machines continues. He hold the finger to his eyes, examining it.
Here is the stock of the situation: He is down officially four fingers. The fingers that have fallen off aren’t necessarily ones he regards as all that important, and he’s still left with six digits—both thumbs, both index fingers, on his left hand the ring finger, and on his right the middle. Only one of the detached fingers no longer exists, but another one is also in three distinct pieces. This means that, of the four, two can still probably be reattached if he puts them on ice and gets himself to a hospital, which he plans to do as soon as the picture has finished uploading and he ‘s sure it looked impressive from the perspective of the people—friends and also potential employers—who will see it. Except that, well, the two intact fingers are black and rotten. He is also almost out of coffee, which means that he’ll need to order another one if this whole profile-updating process is going to take much longer. Perhaps this time he should forgo the heavy cream. Or maybe he should just get regular drip coffee. He has in his pocket $2.37—he knows because he counted it after the barista handed him back the change for his first Americano.
One hundred percent. Your picture has finished uploading. Mark? We really need to talk. It’s about Bryan.
He dated Vanessa for the better part of three years. They broke up at the end of last year when he found out that she’d been cheating on him with Bryan for literally the entire relationship, since even before the Flaming Blowhards.
The picture is done and he can leave now and deal with the finger thing.
But wait—he didn’t saved the picture after he manipulated it in his favorite image manipulation application, which means that the picture he’s just spent five minutes uploading over the coffee shop’s criminally slow wireless connection is the pre-alteration image, the one still entirely in color with his blond hair and without the red highlights. He hasn’t closed the image manipulation software, though—he isn’t an idiot, isn’t so stupid as to close without saving—so his changes are still there. He switches to the image manipulation application. Control+S. Boom. Saved. Boom. Right middle finger crumbles across the the keyboard. Drag and drop the new file. Upload. He has his forefingers and thumbs and left ring finger, but he’s admittedly starting to panic and there’s no shame in that. Nineteen percent. Oh, come on.
He downs the last of the Americano, tilting his head back for the final drops, and when he puts the cup, now empty, back on the table, it’s covered with bits of papery flesh that have peeled from the palm of his hand.. He should caption the new the picture. Yeah, that’s what he should do. Something funny and witty. Something that will indicate that he has taken and edited the picture but that will do so without coming across as bragging.
His left ring finger’s nail falls off, resounding impossibly loud as it hits the shop’s wooden floor, turning exactly zero heads, and for a moment he thinks the finger itself isn’t going to follow, but it does, tumbling from his hand like a house that’s been built on a cliff that then falls into the ocean. It’s an apt metaphor. His finger and a house.
He’s a fast hunt-and-peck typist, though, so even using only his two pointer fingers he can type a caption beneath the image while it uploads. What to type? Hey, guys, just chillin’. Oh, you know, just sittin’ here in my tie in front of this tree. Just being all black and white because that’s how I roll. That moment when your world starts turning red. Mark? Bryan rolled his truck over today. He didn’t make it and I would just like somebody to come hold me.
The right index finger buckles under the weight of his forceful typing. And then the left one does the same, disintegrating into the E key.
He’s all thumbs now, all black and putrid thumbs, but the picture has finished uploading and the caption shows how talented he is with a camera in a way that sounds casual and humble. Okay, so his thumbs are going now too, melting slowly, his whole hands liquifying, dripping over the computer, which is frying as the fleshy liquid seeps beyond the keys and into the motherboard, the screen going blank and then coming back on and then going blank again.
“Listen, I’ll give you the cream for free, but just so you know, the other baristas might not do the same, so if I’m not here next time you may have to pay for a misto.”