By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt
Through the darkness of his closed eyes, Jack let the ambiance of the hall wash through him. Dozens of clearing throats. Hundreds of shuffling bodies. Thousands of fingers sliding along screens.
Amazing how he’d never really heard it before.
“Jack Willborough?” asked a gentle voice. Jack jolted in his seat and opened his eyes. An old woman stood before him, bent over with age, or perhaps just the pain of walking across such a cavernous room to reach his table.
“Yes,” Jack said, gesturing opposite him, “I presume you’re Alice?”
A nod was her only response. No doubt she had to rest her voice for a while now. Jack watched as she struggled into the hard plastic chair, face creased with arthritic agony. A long minute dredged by. Once the woman had settled, Jack leaned in to be more easily heard.
“Should we wait for the others?”
Alice gave another brief nod.
That suited Jack just fine. Tapping his fingers against the table, he scanned the hall, searching amongst the sea of faces for any willing eyes – any not staring unceasingly down. It was some time before he met the gaze of a distant, smiling face. He beckoned them over.
“Buck Young,” said the man when he finally reached them, thrusting out a pudgy hand with altogether too much enthusiasm, “Pleasure to meet’ya, honest it is. I can’t say how much I’ve been looking forward to this. I mean I tell’ya, I haven’t traveled so far since I was this high! Amazing how much it’s changed, y’know? It really makes ya think -“
Jack rubbed the bridge of his nose. A talker. He hadn’t known there were any left.
“Sit down, Buck,” he said, stemming the barrage of speech, “We’ve said we’ll wait for the others.”
“Don’t mind if I do! So how many are we expecting here? I thought we might be at a bigger table, is all.”
Jack looked down at the screen on the table.
9,764,880,351 invites. 12,952 considering. 28 accepted.
They waited for another half hour. Two more people arrived.
“Okay, we should probably start,” said Jack, cutting Buck off mid-story to the relief of a bewildered-looking Nadia.
“Is this it?” croaked Suraj. The effort seemed to cause him significant discomfort. Jack couldn’t blame him – before introducing himself twenty minutes ago, the man hadn’t spoken in years.
“Yes,” said Jack, “This is it.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” said Buck, whistling and leaning back in his seat, “I thought the whole world’d wanna get in on this, y’know. One last go at it.”
“Evidently it doesn’t mean as much to them,” Nadia whispered.
“So don’t keep us in suspense,” said Buck, “what’s on the agenda?”
The four looked at Jack, who squirmed in his seat.
“I… I’m not sure.”
Suraj let out a hollow laugh, while Nadia’s face flashed disapproval. Buck just looked confused.
“Whaddaya mean you’re not sure?” he shouted.
“I mean what I said,” replied Jack, “I’m not sure what we do next. I thought… maybe… one of you would have an idea?”
“Sorry,” said Nadia, “but an idea for what?”
“He means an idea for what to talk about,” explained Buck, but Jack shook his head.
“And idea to save this,” he said, “To save… talking. You know that right now we’re the only human beings on the entire planet who are actually having a conversation?”
“There are-” Suraj began, wincing at the burning from his throat, before recovering and trying again, “there are – a thousand – conversations – right here – at this – very moment.”
Jack stared at him. Then, he slowly gestured around the hall. At every table and in every chair, humans sat clawing at screens. Their eyes were wide and unblinking, their faces lit from below. Every mouth was closed.
“It just ain’t the same,” said Buck.
“Same to me,” he grunted, “Except – less pain.”
“Then why are you here?” asked Nadia.
The man shrugged again.
“So I can – say I was.”
Out of his pocket, he slid a phone, and he sat back in his seat and began to type.
“You…” Buck hissed, his face turning YouTube red, “You coward! You no good turncoat! Who do you think you are?!”
“Buck, calm down,” said Jack, but the man thrust an accusing finger in Suraj’s direction and continued to scream.
“You people aren’t even human anymore! You’re robots! You’re machines! You’re not living, you’re not experiencing anything! What’s the meaning of it all! Tell me! I’m talking to you!”
Suraj said nothing. He merely wiped the spittle from his screen and continued to type. Buck huffed out a furious breath. Lashing out quicker than Jack thought he was capable of, the man had grasped Suraj’s phone and hurled it across the hall. It clattered some distance away, between tables full of hunched humans typing in their own unseen worlds. Suraj shot up, and the two men stood almost nose-to-nose over the table.
Then, just as it seemed that one of them was going to throw a punch, Suraj pulled back and stalked off in the direction of his phone. The table watched him go, and when he found it, he crouched down, continuing to type his message.
He never looked back.
“Can you believe it?” Buck growled, before turning outwards to the neighbouring tables, “You’re all pathetic! Do you know that? Pathetic!”
Silently, the figures shuffled around to avoid his disruption. Everywhere Buck turned, he saw nothing but the backs of his fellow man.
“You’re not going to change it,” said Nadia. Buck lashed around, as if he had forgotten she was there.
“We’ve gotta,” he said, “We can’t let it come to this. We just… we just can’t.”
She stood and looked at each of them in turn.
“I came here on the promise of the last ever conversation. The last real one,” she said, “And I want to thank you. Because you’ve reminded me what I won’t be missing.”
Jack scowled at her, and Buck gaped like a dying fish. Without another word, the young woman walked away.
“Well?” Buck demanded, staring between Jack and Alice, “Say something!”
There was a tense silence, punctuated by a hundred quiet breaths and a thousand scrolling fingers.
“What do you want me to say?” asked Jack.
The colour drained from Buck’s face. His eyes bulged, and he looked ready to collapse. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Eventually, the man turned, and walked back the way he had come.
Jack and Alice sat alone at the table for what felt like hours, saying nothing. As the hall lights changed to evening ambiance, Alice looked up.
“I’m going to kill myself tonight,” the old lady said.
“I… pardon?” Jack said, blinking in surprise.
“I said I’m going to kill myself,” Alice explained calmly, “I haven’t spoken to another person in so long, and when we finally get together… we don’t listen. We didn’t listen to a word anyone said. Not really. So I’ve decided. I’m going to kill myself. And that’s what I wanted to say.”
Jack tried to think how to reply. She seemed so matter-of-fact about it, it was hard to tell if she meant it or not. But there was no sarcasm. No telling smile. Just an old face, and defeated eyes.
If this had been in text, Jack would have known how to respond. He could have taken his time. Sent links to some self-help sites. Copy/pasted what he said to his friend back in college when he’d shared his suicidal thoughts. But here… in the flesh…
Minutes of silence drifted by. Jack found he couldn’t look at her anymore. So instead, to escape the painful expectation of response, he picked up his phone, and he began to type.