After a few pats on the back, he picked up his gear and headed home. His thoughts raced. Here it was okay; he didn’t have to focus unless a car came, so the Minder let his mind run in laps like an excited dog. Elson took in everything, but remembered nothing. His eyes darted from a blade of grass to a butterfly to a parked SUV then down to the toes of his shoes. He thought about microwave popcorn and multiplication and his latest X-Box Infinity game. His thoughts moved like a moth batting against one bulb, then the next, in a string of Christmas lights
But when his hand touched the front door of his house, his minder pinged. Elson’s racing thoughts stilled, and he ran through the list that had been conditioned into him: put gear on the console by the door, put uniform in hamper. Wash up. Dress. Take homework to table. Work until dinner.
And he moved through these motions, his mind tranquil and alert. Nothing intruded into the habits he’d created and the Minder monitored. He did not forget to unlace his shoes before he tried to take off his pants. He did not need to be asked ten times to go wash his hands. He did all these things as if they came naturally to him.
Which they did not.
Finally, face scrubbed and uniform away, Elson sat down at the kitchen table with his tablet and began his homework. He hated homework, though it went a whole lot better now that he had his Minder. When he’d first gotten it, the incessant pinging in his brain had nearly driven him nuts… Well, more nuts than he already was. Elson smiled. It had bothered him that no one else could hear it and sympathize with him, but slowly he learned what it meant to focus, and the pings had grown more infrequent as the weeks had passed.
His grades had gone up too. And he’d made the baseball team, which never would have happened otherwise.
His father watched from his station in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Elson began work. His conditioning kicked in, his eyes moving left to right, keeping up with the scrolling text on his tablet. When it stopped and required an answer, he entered it with his stylus, and then the text would continue to bleed off the page.
“Elson,” his father said, and waited. He knew that Elson had to finish what he was doing before he could acknowledge the sound of his father’s voice. Elson finished a line, hit Pause, and looked at his father. If he’d glanced up first, he would have heard the alarm. “Almost done?”
Elson nodded. “Five more problems, Dad.”
“Good.” He went back to chopping vegetables, and Elson hit Cont.
He listened to the sound of the knife on the cutting board, and he heard a ping. He blinked a few times and returned his attention to the screen.
The smells of cooking filled the room, and Elson carefully scribed out the last few answers on his tablet. The computer checked his work, and he had to correct an answer.
When Elson had finished, he turned off the tablet and returned it to his backpack. At the dinner table, his father served him a plate of fish and vegetables.
“How was school?”
“Fine,” Elson said, pushing the slices of zucchini around on his plate with his fork. He didn’t want to eat them, but he knew Dad would make him eventually. “Terrell is such a spill though, Dad. I can’t believe I used to be friends with him.” He took a bite of the fish, chewed, swallowed. A tinge of guilt touched him. Terrell had the same problems he did before he had the Minder. “Can we, you know…give him one?”
“One what?” Dad raised a glass of wine to his lips and took a brief sip. Elson knew the wrinkled nose that followed meant the wine had soured, but his dad would drink it anyway.
“You know, like I have.”
Dad set down his glass. He folded his hands, his elbows on the table, and looked at Elson over the crags of his knuckles. “No. Absolutely not.”
“It’s still experimental. You know that.”
Elson sighed. “But it works.”
Dad twisted up one corner of his mouth, and his eyes went to the ceiling. He lowered his hands under the table and leaned forward. “You’re a brave boy, Elson. I’m proud to have you as my son.” He paused and pursed his lips. “You know things can still go wrong.”
Elson raised his eyebrows and ate a piece of broccoli. Yeah, having something hardwired into his brain could lead to…issues, but nothing bad had happened yet.
“Tell me about your baseball game.”
Elson slumped his shoulders. His dad wouldn’t talk about Terrell anymore, he knew. He told his dad about the catch he’d made to end the game, but left off the fact that he wished the man had been there. He’d been working, creating more things like the Minder.
After dinner, Elson did the dishes and then sat in the special chair his father kept for him in the workshop. His dad fastened the restraints around Elson’s wrists and ankles, and then attached the leads to the small jack behind Elson’s ear. He had to be restrained, his dad said, in case something happened. He didn’t want Elson to get hurt.
“How many reminders today?” Dad asked as information about Elson’s brain downloaded through the wires and into a computer.
Elson tried to remember. “Five…no, six.”
Dad clicked his tongue and typed on the computer. “Better than last week, but not as good as yesterday.”
Elson felt his eyes getting tired. He wanted to go to bed, but it always took a while for all the info to transfer.
“Any headaches? Eye pain?”
Elson started to shake his head then stopped himself. He had to keep it still during download. “No. I felt fine today.”
His dad showed him the same stack of flash cards he did every night. They showed scenes, and Elson had to find a bicycle in each picture. He didn’t need to say he found it, just see it. The computer at his dad’s elbow would make a sound when Elson saw the bicycle, and his father would go on to the next card.
When that he’d finished that task, his father unhooked him from the computer and undid the restraints. They hugged briefly, and Elson dragged himself off to bed.
But his Minder pinged, and he remembered to brush his teeth.
Finally in bed, he said brief prayers for his father and Terrell, and then closed his eyes.
As he drifted off, he remembered the catch he’d made. How the sun had felt on his back, the praise from his coach, the grins on his teammates’ faces…
The Minder pinged, and Elson refocused.
Sleep, he thought. Sleep, sleep, sleep.