mBedi

Laurel wants the newest tech, but Mom is standing in the way…

By Kate Sheeran Swed

 

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TATAY” © JoannaColeen http://www.flickr.com


No one wants a cake for their sixteenth birthday, or a car, or a bouquet of drone balloons that can deliver pizzas and spy on the neighbors. 

All anyone wants for any birthday is a new mBedi, which is why I’m sitting at the table with my arms crossed while Mom shakes sprinkles onto my chocolate cake.

It’s like we’re part of the Venus colony or something. They might have a reason to go basic. We don’t.

Mom lights candles by swiping a wooden stick across the side of a box—which, by the way, would be unnecessary if she had a starter switch installed between her thumb and index finger like normal people—and looks at me proudly, as if I’m supposed to be impressed at her dexterity with ancient technology.

“Go ahead,” she says. “Blow them out.”

Two years until I’m old enough to authorize my own mBedis. Two years.

I give a half-hearted puff. One of the candles flickers.

“Come on, Laurel, with gusto,” she says. “Get it? GUST-o. Like a gust of wind. Like you mean it.”

“I get it,” I mutter. “And I don’t mean it.”

Mom’s face clouds over. “Well then, I think I’ll wish for an mBedi to magically appear on your butt cheek.” 

“Better than nothing.”

Mom blows out the candles. “You’ve got what you need.”

Not really, no. I’ve got the required messaging mBedi installed on the back of my left hand, maps on the palm. Other kids have games, readers, search tools, calorie counters. One girl can change the color of her eyes with a tap to the temple. My friend Martha can do the same to her hair. Every time I go out with my friends, one of them has to place the order for me on her currency mBedi so I won’t be the freak standing in line clutching paper money.

It’s as if Mom time traveled here from an era when people carried plastic credit cards instead of a barcode in their pinky fingers.

“Picture yourself at eighty years old with Peppermint Smash Mountain permanently installed on your thigh,” Mom says. “Will you love it then?”

“I’ll run updates. Replace it.”

“A fad is a fad,” Mom says. She cuts herself a big piece of cake and starts eating.

She doesn’t offer me a slice.

I endure my pathetic birthday celebration for as long as I can before I take off, with a vague excuse about wanting to see my friends.

Instead, I go to the mBedi store.

The walls are made of see-through touch screens, a cube of building-sized mBedis in the middle of the city. They’re billboards, basically, and the courtyard around the store is one big ad. As you walk up, squares that looked like regular concrete come to life beneath your feet. A girl with a huge smile demonstrates self-cleaning dental mBedis. A boy invites you to try the new inner-eyelid virtual reality mBedis, which have got to be painful to install.

Usually I walk around and try all the blocks in the ground because I’m too shy to go up to the walls. Sixteen years old and I can’t even go into the store that everyone else treats like an extension of home.

But today I feel reckless.

There’s a wait for the wall, but I don’t mind. I stand behind a pair of tween queens—Mom would call them “teenie boppers”—with feathery pink hair ties and mBedis glowing on their arms, though I can’t see what kind. They’re waiting to try a Hovertile, which only works on closed courses and requires a license you can’t get until you turn fifteen. The tween queens might be getting ahead of themselves.

They step onto the tile together—it looks like any other mBedi tile, part of the digital mosaic of the mBedi store only it works together with the wall—and one of them presses the start button.

“I’m sorry,” the wall tells them in a pleasant female voice. “Your age chip indicates you are not authorized to operate this mBedi. Please return in two-point-one years, Lila, and one-point-seven years, Wendy.”

“It won’t even let us try?” says either Lila or Wendy. “It’s not like we’re going to crash a stupid display model.”

“Stale as heck,” says the other, and they turn away to head for the next wall.

I step forward. “Wait,” I say. “Get behind me for a sec.”

They exchange a glance. I know they must be noting my lack of mBedis, and the fact that I’m here by myself. Talk about stale. But after a second, Lila and Wendy slip between my back and the people who wait impatiently behind me.

“Authorized, Laurel,” the voice says. “Happy birthday. Please stand on the glass tile with your feet planted a shoulder-width apart. Hovering initiating in three, two—”

“OK,” I tell the girls, “hop on.”

“—one.”

The glass tile rises, and I jump off—staying exactly in front of the mBedi screen—as the girls leap up. The system allows me to control it for a few more seconds on the glass, pushing the girls up farther, then sideways in the small cube allowed by the trial. I can’t help thinking how cool it would be to ride one of these things on a Hovertile team, zooming around obstacles while the crowd cheers. They’re already talking about making it an Olympic event.

The girls giggle uncontrollably and clutch at each other until the wall says, “Unauthorized riders. Goodbye.”

The wall shuts down, and the glass tile delivers Lila and Wendy safely to the ground.

“Thanks,” one of them says, and they run off.

Before I step aside to give the next shoppers their shot, I glance inside the store. Just for a second, because it’s not like I get this close very often. Or ever. Behind the translucent images of the rebooting wall, I catch the eye of a girl who’s standing inside, watching me. She’s about my age, with dyed black hair tucked behind her ears, and she’s wearing the blue shirt and lanyard that indicate she’s an mBedi store employee. She starts toward me, scowling, so before she can call me out for breaking the rules, I spin and hurry toward home.

 


 

Mom’s attitude is icy for a few days after my birthday, which I actually kind of enjoy. Life without lectures? Sign me up.

She’s too cheerful to keep it up, though, so it’s less than a week before she’s suggesting a movie marathon with popcorn she made on the stove.

“I’m supposed to meet Jane and Martha,” I say.

Mom waves the bowl of popcorn and winks. “More for me,” she says, and drifts into the living room, where she has an old-fashioned flat screen mounted on the wall for watching movies.

This is why I can’t have people over.

 


 

I’m early to meet my friends, so I haunt the mBedi store until the sales girl who was watching me on my birthday comes outside with a spray bottle and a soft cloth. But instead of washing the display mBedis, she stalks over to me, shoulders hunched, and looks me over like I’m something she found in her shoe. She’s a few inches shorter than me, and she doesn’t seem to think staring is rude. The plastic tag on her shoulder says Val.

“You could use an upgrade,” she says, and even though it’s true I’m not sure if I like her for saying it.

“You probably work on commission,” I say, and I manage not to cringe even though it’s exactly what Mom would say.

“Is money the problem, or is it your parents?”

“Parents. I mean, Mom.”

“Then I can get you an mBedi,” she says. “Whatever kind you want.”

I narrow my eyes, resisting the urge to mimic her rounded posture. “How?”

She blinks. On anyone else, I think, it would be a full-on eye roll. “Meet me here at seven, and make sure you know what you want.”

Before I can ask more questions, she slumps away, spray bottle in hand, and disappears inside without cleaning a single tile.

Any mBedi Val can get me without Mom’s permission is going to be against the rules. Only the mBedi store is authorized to install, so either she’s talking about stolen mBedis—which I’m not sure I want to get behind, even though the mBedi store practically owns the world right now—or she’s talking about unauthorized installation. Maybe both.

Either way, I know I shouldn’t do it. I head to the coffee shop to meet Martha and Jane, feeling like a coward.

It’s even worse when I see them. I walk into the coffee shop, and they’ve both got their t-shirts rolled up. They stare at each other’s stomachs. I’m trying to think of some quip I can make about stripping in public when I see they’re analyzing each other’s fancy new screens.

“What’s this?” I ask, sticking my head down beside Martha’s pink-streaked one, which is about an inch from Jane’s stomach. They’re both so startled that they jump, then start giggling. Jane’s stomach mBedi gives off a wild punctuation of hot pink fireworks, beautiful against her dark complexion.

“They’re mood mBedis,” Jane says as Martha straightens. “We ordered you a coffee. Milk, no sugar.”

We’ve known each other since kindergarten. We used to call ourselves the triplets because we’re all about the same height, even though we don’t look alike in any other way. Martha’s got blond hair, currently with pink highlights, Jane’s hair is black and curly, and mine falls into the mousy-brown category. The whole triplet thing fell away when they started to get matching mBedis in middle school, but they’ve never been awful enough to start saying they’re twins. We’re still close, I guess.

“A mood mBedi?” I ask, because I need to catch up on what’s happening, and my friends seem dangerously close to changing the subject. Their mBedi colors are cooling into pools of blue and green their excitement apparently already waning.

The center of the cafe table opens, and a tray rises to deliver our drinks. My coffee is there, and I make a note to transfer the cash to Jane’s account when I get home.

“The colors reflect emotions,” Martha says, finally dropping her shirt and sitting down across from me.

“Nifty,” I say, although in all honesty it sounds like they’ve run out of cheap mBedis worth having and can’t afford the major stuff like Hovertiles. It’s basically a cosmetic mBedi with a twist. Boring.

“Everyone’s getting them,” Jane says, but Martha kicks her under the table so she adds, “I mean, not everyone, but we saw Allison and Doug in line behind us, and Trevor looked super jealous when we ran into him in the coffee line. He says he’s saving up.”

Martha gives me a sly look. “Even Matt was there,” she says.

My face gets hot. No mBedi needed to interpret that. “Do they have to go in the stomach?” I ask.

“Some of the guys are getting them on a bicep, if they have room,” Martha says. “You want it to be visible, you know?”

“Definitely for Allison’s party tomorrow night,” Jane says. I want to point out that their typical t-shirts aren’t exactly see-through, but I have a feeling they plan to remedy that for tomorrow—either with scissors or a wardrobe change between home and the party.

“Let’s go together,” says Martha, and even though she’s being nice, that suddenly sounds like a nightmare. Everyone from school showing off their mood mBedis, while I’m stuck with the ability to text my mother or offer directions.

I jump out of my seat and the chair tilts against my knees, threatening to crash to the floor. “I gotta go,” I say. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

“You just got here,” Jane says.

“Sorry.”

I know they’re watching me leave, and that they’ll put their heads together and gossip for the next hour about whether a lack of mBedis leads to brain damage or something, but I don’t care.

I head straight for the mBedi store.

 


 

“Futuristic Light” © Christine Schmitt http://www.flickr.com

Val’s leaning against the glass when I get there. She pretends not to see me until I’m right in front of her, though there aren’t many other people around and she has to have been waiting for me.

“I didn’t think you’d show,” she says.

“Then why did you?”

She shrugs and pushes off the wall. “I get a cut. Let’s go. Not often I get to show up with an mBedi virgin.”

“I’ve got the mandatory ones,” I say, defensive.

Val doesn’t answer, which is worse than another sarcastic comment. Maybe she doesn’t want to lose a customer by harping on the brutal truth.

The unlicensed mBedi parlor isn’t far from the main store. We wind down a side street and a narrow set of stairs that lead below street level, and we’re there. If you were to glance down while walking on the sidewalk, you’d just make out the decal in the window and the sad collection of tattoos they pretend to do. It’s a front, which any official should know; why would anyone get tattoos? There’s an mBedi for that, and you can change them.

There’s no jingly bell on the door or anything, but as soon as Val slips inside a skinny guy comes out of the back. His head almost brushes the low ceiling, and he’s wearing a sleeveless shirt so I can see he’s got more mBedis than I’ve ever seen on one person. He’s a walking Times Square. He’s got round nano mBedis on each earlobe, and a bunch more just below his knuckles. I’ve never understood what a screen that tiny can offer—nail polish, maybe? Hand moisturizer? He’s got various sized screens all up and down his arms, some of them black, others alive and flashing.

“New blood?” he asks, looking me over.

“This is Richie,” Val says. “Richie, this is—I don’t know your name.”

“Laurel.”

“Well, Laurel, Richie’s the best unlicensed mBedder in the city.”

Richie holds out his arms and spins a circle. “Did most of these myself.”

The mBedi store has tiles and walls to display their products; this place has Richie. “Nice,” I say.

“What’re you here for?”

I’ve saved enough for a Hovertile—not like I’ve got anything else to spend my allowance on—but I’m not licensed, and those controls have to go on a hand or arm, where Mom would see. I take a deep breath. “Can you do the new mood mBedis?”

Val twists her lips in distaste, but Richie claps his hands together. “I can do anything, doll. Have a seat.” 

I’d thought Val might take off, but she slides onto the counter to watch as I sit on the edge of the chair. It’s like a dentist’s chair—which people with dental mBedis have no reason to know about, lucky them—and after he measures my stomach, Richie tips the chair back. “Ready?”

I nod, even though I’m way more nervous than I thought I’d be. I grip the arms of the chair while Richie shoots me with a local anesthetic. I try to relax. Every once in a while I sneak a glance at what he’s doing, because I figure it’s probably easy to go too deep with a stomach mBedi or to kill someone by sticking the wires in the wrong place. I keep expecting to feel a jolt or a jab to my stomach, maybe even an electric shock. In some ways it’s weirder that I can’t feel much at all.

After about an hour, Richie steps back with a grin that makes his cheek mBedis look like overdone rouge on a clown. “All righty,” he says, “your current mood is relief. Gnarly.”

I look down at my stomach, where the skin is rimmed in gentle red around the brand new screen. The mBedi shows waves of blue-green, not exactly calm and yet somehow exactly reflective of the relief I’m feeling now that this is over.

I pay Richie, and Val escorts me out of the shop. “I don’t know why you’d want to show off your feelings for everyone to see,” she says.

I’m not sure I do, either, but I just thank her and head for home.

 


 

In the morning, the anesthetic has worn off enough to make moving pretty painful. My whole abdomen is sore, which I guess makes sense. I know mBedis can hurt, sometimes for a while. Martha and Jane were still on the anesthetic when I saw them yesterday, so I’m actually looking forward to sharing that part of the process, almost as much as I’m looking forward to seeing their faces when I show them what I got.

I do my best to hide the mBedi while I’m making breakfast, but Mom watches me from behind her coffee mug like I’m some kind of a weirdo. Maybe it’s because I wince as I reach for the toaster.

“Did you hurt yourself, Laurel?” 

“Yeah,” I say. “Overdid the sit-ups. Don’t forget I have Allison’s birthday party tonight.”

For all the credit I don’t give her, Mom’s smarter than that. She narrows her eyes, but I’m wearing an over-sized sweatshirt and as far as I know, she isn’t licensed to be mBedded with x-ray vision.

Still, I change quickly and head off to school early, with my toast, before she decides to investigate further.

Martha and Jane are duly surprised by my transformation, and we decide to go shopping for cropped shirts before Allison’s party. Neither of them seems to be in pain, and I don’t want to ask because even though they know I’m a newbie, it’s important to be a non-stale newbie. There’s no redness around their mBedis, and mine’s still pink at the edges. They don’t mention it, so I figure it’s nothing to worry about.

I’m feeling pretty rotten by the end of school, but there’s no way I’m wasting my first real mBedi by missing Allison’s party. We go shopping together and pick out the same shirt in different colors—a strip of cloth to cover the boobs, with a curtain of tassels hanging over the midriff. My first choice is blue, but Martha wants to match today’s highlights so I end up with green instead.

When I strip my shirt in the dressing room, there’s an oozing situation starting at the corner of my mood mBedi, but I doubt anyone would notice but me. The screen swirls with sickly yellow and orange worry, but I ignore it, try on my tassel shirt, and get dressed without showing the girls how it looks.

Allison’s having her party on the roof of some important building. The doorman even checks a list and draws lines through our names before we’re allowed to go up. I’m lucky that Jane and Martha have kept hanging out with me through the years. If they didn’t stick by me, I’d never get invites to this sort of thing.

“party” © akuckosister http://www.flickr.com

The party is packed with people and dark like a dance club, with multicolored searchlights figure-eighting across the floor. Leafy trees grow everywhere, like it’s half-park, half-roof, and strings of lanterns droop over our heads. When we get closer, I see that each lantern is made of cube-shaped screens playing slideshows with pictures of Allison. Clusters of people stand near the low ones in the corners, giggling at the poof of a ponytail she had in elementary school. 

Jane and Martha link arms, so I join them. We’re a trio, Martha in the middle. With my legs feeling shaky, Martha’s arm through mine is solid. Like a reinforcement. They let go when we reach the dance floor, and I do the same, reluctantly. 

We dance. Jane and Martha’s mBedis are matching kaleidoscopes of color, spinning droplets of confidence and joy.

When I glance at mine, it’s giving off half-hearted yellow and green swirls. Nerves and lightheadedness. Great. At least no one can see the oozing edges in the dark.

And then Matt dances up beside us.

“Ladies,” he says, and something in my stomach drops. Like there’s a mini roller coaster in there, and I just went through the loop.

Matt’s the kind of guy who already looks like he’s been spending most of his time learning how to do whatever his parents’ business is—stocks, securities, I don’t know. He wears a button-down shirt over long khaki shorts, his brown hair perfectly parted on one side. Unlike the other boys in our class, he knows how to recognize and operate a comb. He’s got a tasteful number of mBedis, and is drinking something brown in a short glass, which only increases the impression of his maturity.

“You look tan.” Martha’s tone is accusatory. I’m not sure how she can tell, since it’s pretty dark up here.

“Just got back from the islands,” he says.

Then he looks at me. He glances at my stomach and grins. “You ever been, Laurel?”

“Uh, no,” I stammer. “I’d like to.”

“Clearest water you’ve ever seen.”

I smile, trying to think of something clever to say. Did you see any starfish? No, too specific. Did you go snorkeling?

“Hey Laurel,” Jane says, sounding too casual, “maybe we should go get a drink.”

I want to shoot her a what-the-hell look for interrupting, but then I catch a glimpse of my mBedi’s reflection in Matt’s glass.

Hearts. Red and pink hearts, swirling around the screen in a huge spiral. I drop my gaze to the horror, unable to comprehend how this could be happening. The hearts pop like little bubbles, and the remains turn into swarms of more hearts. Smitten. My mood is smitten? 

Jane’s effort to save me is wasted when Matt’s eyes follow mine to the mBedi. He gives me a little smile and backs up, arms raised in mock surrender. Then he melts away into the party while the people around us start to laugh.

I abandon the dance floor and push my way toward the elevator. I’m feeling woozy, and the mBedi is back to yellow, mixed with glaring red embarrassment. Jane and Martha follow, even when I blow through the lobby and the doorman says, “No reentry!” Somehow, their stomachs are still pulsing with that beautiful kaleidoscope, and I realize the mood mBedis are as full of shit as everything else. You must be able to freeze them on a happy emotion or something.

I want to accuse my friends of setting me up, but as soon as we reach the street I fall to my knees on the curb and wretch. Jane grabs my hair, and Martha puts a hand on my shoulder as the world turns into spots.

“Oh my god,” Martha says, “look at her stomach.”

“We have to get her to—”

Where? I wonder.

The lights go out.

 


 

“What the ???” © Ron Guest http://www.flickr.com

A few days after my release from the hospital, I stop by the mBedi store. I’m extremely grounded, probably more grounded than anyone has ever been, in all of history. But I’m well within my school-to-home-travel-time limit, and this won’t take long.

Val’s scrubbing a tile in the courtyard when I get there. I walk up and stand over her, letting my shadow fall right on top of the square she’s working on. She looks up, annoyed.

“What?” she says. “Looking for another mBedi?”

“Not since the last one almost killed me, thanks.”

She doesn’t need to know my body’s decided to reject all mBedis. Even my messages and map have shut down, and no one can say if I’ll be able to use them again. “Sealed your own fate, kiddo,” Mom said when the doctor outlined the prognosis—which basically amounted to: “We’ll have to wait and see.” Which basically forced me to inform him that medical school may have been a waste of time in his case.

I guess, though, that Mom’s not totally wrong about the sealing my fate thing. Jane and Martha aren’t talking to me, and I’m starting to think it wasn’t the mBedis that edged us apart over the years. I’m not sure I can win them back. I’m not sure I deserve to. 

Val’s eyes go all big, and she looks at my stomach. I can see her doing the math—there’s obviously no mBedi outline beneath my shirt. “You didn’t rat on Richie, did you?”

I shrug. “Couldn’t say. I was heavily medicated.”

Val gets up, shoves her rag into her back pocket, and stalks into the store without another word. I assume she’s going to call Richie. I also assume the police will have raided his shop by now.

I’d love to stand here and savor the moment, but I’ve got a curfew to keep and no way to message Mom that I’m running late—not that she’d buy any excuse I have to offer.

It’s always been weird to have fewer mBedis than everyone else. Now, it’s downright lonely.

Maybe someday, when I’m favored for gold in Olympic Hovertile, the announcers will tell my story with awe in their voices, describing this incident as the most appalling setback I could have been forced to overcome. Yet here she is, they’ll say, about to make Hovertile history.

As I walk home, I daydream of surfing on the wind.

 


Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Find more of her work (and snag a free short story collection) at katesheeranswed.com, or follow her on Instagram @katesheeranswed.

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