Tia waited slumped in a chair next to the secretary’s desk in her middle school’s counseling office, her stomach growling, her hands fidgety. She pulled on the red thread of the fabric of her chair and tightened it around her pinky finger. Unraveling it and tightening it again. The secretary looked as tired as Tia felt as she entered a large stack of files of student information into the new online data system sponsored by the Digital Addiction Defense Fund. Tia read the the bright glossy poster that loomed above the secretary’s desk. Do you lose control of time when you enter The Maze? Is it hard for you to be present in your everyday activities? Do you find it difficult to develop friendships? Do you find yourself irritable and prone to anger when you leave The Maze? If so, you may be exhibiting symptoms of Adolescent Digital Addiction Disorder, otherwise known as ADAD. Counselors are available in Room 214. This service is brought to you by the The Digital Addiction Defense Fund.
Tia hadn’t come in voluntarily, but she did her best to show up to her mandatory sessions.
The secretary looked up at Tia waiting. It wasn’t the first time Mrs. Perez was late.
“Should I go back to class?”
The secretary was about to answer when Mrs. Perez rushed in carrying more stacks of files that she added to the secretary’s endless pile.
“Sorry,” she said to the secretary, “There have just been so many kids diagnosed. I can’t keep up.” She turned to Tia and smiled. “Hi Tia, sorry to keep you waiting. I had another meeting with the defense team.” Her heavy grey leather bag made a dent in her shoulder. “Come, let’s go into my office.”
Tia sat down and began playing with her hair, and tried to ignore the throbbing in her hands. Mrs. Perez dropped her bag on the stool across from Tia. From where Tia was sitting she could see a sliver of her microthin phone, tucked neatly in the side pocket. Tia’s palms started to itch. If only she could take a quick tour on The Maze. Once Mrs. Perez got settled, Tia did her best to focus her energy on answering her questions.
“No, I haven’t had the urge to go on The Maze.”
“No, it’s like I’m not interested in it anymore.”
“No, I do not think it’s kind to make fun of people.”
“I am just using the computer to do my homework and research for my history paper.”
“Yes, my mom is following the recommended guidelines to only let me use my phone under supervision.”
Mrs. Perez studied Tia’s face and asked her last question, “Have you snuck on any phones without permission?”
“I couldn’t get to my phone even if I wanted to, it’s locked up in that Digital Defense Technology safe you gave my mom last week at the parent meeting.”
This answer seemed to satisfy Mrs. Perez. “Alright Tia, You’ve answered enough questions for today and I have a lot of work to do. I know it’s hard, but you know you’re not defined by the status or the points you get on The Maze, right? And the relationships, you do understand, they’re not real. You know that right?”
Tia nodded in agreement as she thought about Justin. He was real and he was her first and only boyfriend. People left her alone once she had enough points to have a boyfriend. She had to find him.
“Alright, let me finish updating your file and get you back to class.” Mrs. Perez looked through the stack of files on her desk. “So much work to do,” she said under her breath. “I bet the secretary has it. I’ll be glad when we enter all this paperwork and can go online. I’ll be right back.”
Tia’s heart accelerated. Inside the grey leather bag was the latest high power microthin phone. The shiny silver case looked beautiful against the matte grey leather. As she listened to Mrs. Perez talk to the secretary, Tia reached in her bag and felt it’s warmth ease the itching of her fingers. She quickly tucked it into the waistline of her jeans.
Mrs. Perez came back in and smiled. “I’m sorry we can’t talk longer today. However, you are making so much progress. I’m so proud of you.”
Tia forced herself to smile back.
The hallway was empty when Tia left the office taking in the heat of Mrs. Perez’s phone against her hip. Tia chose the single stall gender neutral bathroom on the third floor because you could lock the door from the inside. She quickly overrode Mrs. Perez’s security password and logged on to the underground wifi system. A red hologram mask projected from the phone and she quickly pushed her face into it. Tia immediately felt the charge of digital energy wake up her senses. She was in.
Tia relaxed into the body of her avatar’s long black hair, full lips, and curvaceous hips on top of skinny legs that were the complete opposite of her chunky thighs and naturally frizzy hair that she took pains to straighten each day. She toured The Maze looking for laughs. She stopped in front of a video of a large teenage girl wearing a short skirt who didn’t realize a camera was videotaping her large granny underwear as she climbed up the stairs. Lose some weight already, someone messaged across the screen. It wasn’t much to laugh at, but the laugh numbers were at 97. If she could just be the 100th person, she would earn 100 points. The girl looked familiar. She felt a tiny pang of regret when she realized the girl was Patricia, her neighbor who she used to play with in elementary school. Tia clicked on the yellow laughing face and watched as 100 yellow laughing faces exploded around her. Status Increase blinked on and off in green letters at the top of her screen.
She kept walking through The Maze trying to see if she could make it to two hundred points. She looked for images and videos that were close to 100 laughs and tried to find Justin. She stopped at a picture of six girls. One of them was Grace, a girl she used to read with in the summer literacy program her mom made her go to. The picture had 96 laughs. This could be her chance. The caption read, Cast your vote on who is the ugliest girl! She hesitated on Grace’s picture. Grace had short hair, crooked teeth, and a lot of acne. She used to share her Cheez-It crackers and grapes with her during recess back in the 6th grade. 98 laughs. She needed the points. She quickly clicked on the laughing face, hoping she would be the 100th person. No faces exploded around her. Oh well.
Welcome back sexy. Justin’s text emerged on her screen. She wondered where he was and if they could manage to get close enough to share a laugh. She quickly messaged him red kissing lips. Where have you been? He responded. I missed you. A combination of hearts and flowers burst on her screen. I miss you too. Since her mom took her phone she never had time to chill with her digital boyfriend. Where are you? She messaged. He wrote back. Did you see the football player with the baby size dick? It got mad comments. There’s so many laughs here. Just made it to 500. She had to find him before she ran out of time.
“Coming through, Coming through.” The security agent walked through the line of students waiting for the bathroom. “It’s probably one of those phone addicts again,” he told his partner. “7th one this morning. Coming in!” He shouted as he unlocked the bathroom door and found Tia walking around the perimeter of the bathroom while her avatar roamed The Maze. The red hologram mask emphasized the red rims of her wide unblinking eyes and gave her an eery edge as her thumbs and forefingers moved rapidly across the keyboard.
“Hey!” He said trying to get her attention. “Excuse me!”
Her head moved slightly towards his voice, but she gave no indication of hearing him.
“We’ve got a live one,” he said speaking into his telewatch. “Send the Retrievers to Bathroom C5.”
An electronic voice spoke as a green light emerged on the screen of his telewatch, “Request accepted.”
The retrievers arrived from the Digital Addiction Defense Team, one male and one female with name tags that identified them as Jim and Colleen.
Jim spoke into his telewatch. “Arriving at the cite for retrieval.”
Colleen rolled her eyes. “These kids are savages.”
Tia was oblivious as Colleen and Jim put on their body armor suits and marched in the bathroom with their heavy boots.
“The red rims around her eyes indicate she has probably been in the system for about thirty minutes,” Colleen said as she strapped up.
The body armor was a thick impenetrable fabric that absorbed the shock of assaults. Tia told her mother that the outer layer reminded her of the gloves they wore at Chipotle when the cooks chopped chicken. Before her father died, Tia’s mother would have laughed at the absurdity.
Jim put on his helmet for face protection and touched his bruised eye for a moment. “It doesn’t always work,” he laughed.
“Oh, it will this time,” Colleen answered.
Tia was an honors student before her father died. No one knew that she blamed herself for his suicide and that The Maze was the only place she felt like she could both hide and be accepted. She was tired of the way her mother’s eyes sagged everyday and tired of listening to her cries each night. Tia was still alive, wasn’t she?
The steel webbed gloves provided a sturdy, yet flexible grip when retrieving electronic devices. Jim stopped and smiled at the staff and students who had gathered to watch the retrieval. Some of the kids had their phones out and were videotaping. Knowing the retrieval would go viral and that he could get a bonus from the company he made it a point to speak before the retrieval. “The body armor we are wearing is sponsored by The Digital Defense Fund and is available online at www.DigitalDefense.com. Be sure to mention Jim and Colleen when you are placing your order.”
The pants reminded Tia of snow pants with knee pads when she watched the video of her retrieval in recovery. They would remind her of the hot pink knee pads her father bought her when she first learned to ride a bike.
“You think you can get away with taking a staff member’s phone? Unbelievable. These kids are nothing but savages these days! I swear!” Colleen yelled at Tia.
Tia had not heard anyone speak and was still trying to increase her status, but during rehab Tia would look up the word savage. She would look in the mirror and wonder if she was barbaric.
“Let’s just do the retrieval,” Jim said.
“Tia, this is Colleen you have ten seconds to give us the device.”
Tia’s blood shot eyes were locked on the screen in front of her. The smells of the bathroom would normally have grossed her out by now.
“Listen to my voice. I will count backwards from ten. When I reach the number one if you have not given us the device we will come in to retrieve it.”
Several students huddled around the door, grateful that it wasn’t them.
Some students logged on to The Maze and tried to find Tia.
Jim asked several of the students and staff to email him their recordings to get a 10% discount online and to be sure to use the hashtag #DigitalAddictionDefenseTeam when making posts.
Tia did not know she was live.
Tia continued touring The Maze of images and videos. She finally found Justin and was following his hits. Laughing in all of the right places. She had almost caught up to him when she found a pathetic looking girl walking around in the bathroom that was close to one hundred points. She quickly hit the laughing face and waited for the explosion of laughing faces. The words Status Decrease blinked on and off on her screen. Something must be wrong. The girl was hunched over her phone, her almost straight hair all over the place. She scrolled down the comments. Loser. Idiot. Fake. An aching feeling loomed in the pit of her stomach, but she couldn’t figure out why. Maybe if she added a comment she could increase her rank. There’s Justin. They finally landed in the same spot. They could share a laugh. That would be so cool if they could share enough laughs to make it to King and Queen status. She read the comments and tried to find him. What is up with her hair? Do something with that frizz already. She wrote, nudging Justin. That is you stupid. Justin responded. Laughing faces with sinister eyes exploded on the screen. Immediately her status was reduced again. What? Tia was confused. No, that’s not me, what are you talking about? Tia tried to click on a laughing face, but she kept losing points. The messages stormed her page. You’re lame. I see you bitch.
Tia didn’t understand. She had to get her status back up. She had to post something. She had to figure why they were saying it was her.
Tia sunk to the floor in the bathroom in the fetal position with her fists tightly wound around the phone when she realized it was her they were laughing at.
Tia had to somehow gain her status back. There had to be a way. She had to find someone else to make fun of to redeem herself. There was a baby picture of a boy in her math class, with the words, His penis size hasn’t changed, written across the image. She hit the laughing face and earned ten points.
She had to find something.She lingered on the avatar of Adam, a boy she use to like in 7th grade. A message emerged on her screen, bringing her back to her live video. Get off my page bitch. Someone else wrote. Get a life. A light flashed on her screen. Status decrease blinked on her page in bright red letters. Don’t respond, Don’t answer. Don’t respond, Don’t answer. She repeated to herself over and over.
She couldn’t bring herself to sign off. There had to be a way to fix this.
“Ready for retrieval.” Colleen spoke into her telewatch. “This is order #625430. We are going in.”
Jim nodded to Colleen. He grabbed the phone in one swift move and secured it in the portable safe. As Tia balled her hands into fists and pulled back to swing at Jim, Colleen moved in and held Tia’s arms behind her back. Tia began kicking backwards at Colleen and then at Jim when he returned. The kicks bounced off of the flexible steel body armor. All of the pain and humiliation of being laughed at poured out of her as she kicked with all the force she had left. “Give me back that phone asshole.” She wrangeld her arms free from Colleen.
“She’s a live one,” said Colleen.
“Sedation request.” Jim spoke into his telewatch. “The client is not accepting the terms of the retrieval.”
Tia continued to kick and punch as if possessed by a secret force of power. If only she could get back on The Maze and increase her status. She had to find someone to laugh at.
Jim and Colleen ignored her.
Tia spotted a golden lock of hair sticking out of Colleen’s helmet and pulled.
“You little bitch.” Colleen winced in pain and slapped her across the face.
“Colleen, follow procedures.”
“Sedation approved.” A women’s electronic voice spoke simultaneously from both Colleen and Jim’s telewatch.
As Colleen pulled out a syringe from her medical case, Jim held down Tia’s arm as she inserted it into her arm. Tia immediately became limp and slumped to the floor. She felt her brain cloud over. She had to find someone to laugh at. She could double her status if she could just be the 100th person. When would she win?
“See what happens when you take people’s things.”
She looked at Colleen and her evil smile looked like one of the laughing faces coming to life. She huddled away, scared. She tried to speak, but her mouth was numb. Her body responded slowly as she moved her arm and put her hand to her stomach. She felt like she was going to be sick. Her body moved as if she was fighting against sand. She tried to speak, but the sounds coming out were a blur.
“The sedation should last about an hour. Let’s get her back to the counseling office.”
Tia’s stomach growled while she waited in the same chair she sat in that very morning. There was enough unraveled thread to wrap around three of her fingers. She kept the thread tightly wound around her fingers and kept pulling on the excess, cutting off her circulation and feeling while she waited.
Diana Quiñones is an 8th grade English teacher by day and writer by night. She resides in New York City’s Washington Heights and is currently completing her first novel. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with her family. Quinones loves exploring themes relevant to her students and helping them understand the power of language and the written word. She is an alum of Kweli Art of the Short Story Workshop, VONA/Voices and Las Dos Brujas Writer’s Workshop. Her short story, Wisdom’s Path is included in the collection Near Kin: A Collection of Words and Art inspired by Octavia Estelle Butler.