On screen you are an abstract masterpiece. I secretly take screenshots as we talk, print and rearrange them on my walls. In a gallery I would label them – laughing, frowning, embarrassed, quizzical, and so on. My exhibition title would be something profound, something only you would understand. Something about friendships and the internet, and the paradox of being both near and distant.
On screen you are a galaxy of stars not yet discovered. Sometimes you call me at breakfast; the early hours when you sharpen and tease me with clarity. Pixels match your expression in real time, your old self forming in the digital fog. You look as I remember – our evenings sitting on your porch, drinking elderberry wine, watching the bats at dusk. When they sold my house, you bought me a laptop. Friends for life, you said. To keep in touch, you said.
On screen you are a collage of low resolution. Colours flicker as you speak, a living stained-glass window. At peak times your outline fades into mosaic – early evenings, as other residents compete for bandwidth. Families reconnecting at full volume – How are they looking after you? When is the best time to call? Are you keeping busy? Sometimes my children make the effort to call, remembering my existence, their faces riddled with guilt. For not calling sooner, for putting me here, for taking an easy way out.
On screen you are a new shade of skin. I project your image onto the wall, bathe in your hues, awash with the scent of your voice. Your colour sustains me, keeping me attached to the outside world, to the life I had prior. Everything else is monotone. The communal dining room lives in the past, residents singing songs of old, melodies of sepia. Staff clean around our feet, brush dust from our laps, sweep colour from our lives. Only when we talk online, do I see you bleed rainbows.
On screen you are the centre of attention. Staff come in three times a day, always asking about you, listening to my stories of us growing old together. They browse your portraits, unable to see you without context. To them you are the physical – the coloured ink on paper, the light reflecting. Sometimes they bring their own labels, sticking them on objects around the room. Television channel names, HOT DO NOT TOUCH, SHARP OBJECT, PRESS THIS FOR HELP.
On screen you are my constant distraction. Sometimes I forget to eat or get dressed. Other times the staff will find me, staring at the screen long after your call, the burn of your ghost fading. I tell you about my room – the airline meals brought on a tray, the staff who label my belongings. You give me advice to write everything down, a daily paragraph, in language ever more abstract. You tell me about your new batch of wine, the bats casting shadows across your garden. You talk to me as if I am still sitting by your side, still healthy and aware, still the best of neighbours. Sometimes the audio scrambles, and your words become clicks and chirps, the connection delivering you in tiny rectangles. Shapes fluctuate as it tries to assemble your form, unable to keep up with your tiniest of movements – a blink of your eyes, a rise of your brow. You are a code for me to crack, patterns to interpret – concerned, scared, lonely – adding them to my gallery.
On screen you fade without ever changing. I often struggle to see past the image, the physical. You become lost in liquid crystal, an alien language, a word said so many times to lose meaning. Context is nostalgia. I see component parts without meaning. Everything is flat – something rectangular, made of something else, blocking something else. Your gallery is my only reference, the labels matching your presence on screen. Everything else is confetti, a jumble of colour, fading to pixel.
On screen you disintegrate. I am unable to make out your form, detached from the onscreen chaos. The essence of you flows away, your voice now that of a stranger. I tell you of my exhibition, and how I am wandering its exhibits, searching for your match. Your onscreen image rearranges in response, something I struggle to recognise, a new piece of art for my gallery.
Paul is from Sheffield, UK. His stories have appeared in Milk Candy Review, Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, and was recently on the Best British & Irish Flash Fiction list for 2019-2020.