I lazily sprawled out on the warm grass of the Castle Hills. That was the pretend name Cassidy, Rafael, Sera, and I had once given these dramatic sloping hills. The "castle" was the deformed ring of boulders at the top, which always seemed like the impenetrable lair of a three-headed cat king or something else children found magical. All of us had had imaginary roles, I was a wizard, Raf was an alien astronaut who had a fear of birds, Sera was a Tree Princess who actually had evil death powers, and Cassidy was an alchemist.
In our games, there had been a few times Sera had pretended to be a princess locked away between those sloping stones, and today she was locked away in her phone.
I sighed, disgusted by how much like my mom I sounded, even to myself. All three of my friends were in fact buried into their phones, the only thing that signalled they were alive was the swift movements of their eyes.
Sera was no doubt on social media, already posting her adorable story post on how the four of us were hanging out. Cassidy was probably reading or watching a scientific Youtube channel, while Rafael caught up on sports or messaged his girlfriend. Which was a thing he did now, constantly.
I wasn't sure if it was the cajoling of the warm summer breeze or being surrounded by honey-coated childhood memories that made me feel annoyed at them. There was a time we used to beg our parents to let us hang out, to let us venture up these hills so we could madly play some secret game. Or go sledging, or recreate famous battles or movies. Man, those were good times.
And now, Sera was irately wiping bugs off her summer dress and long, tanned legs. Cassidy had entered some other world, and Rafael was chuckling over something his utterly delightful girlfriend had written. It was strange being left behind for the first time. And not just left behind because of age, but because they were all on their phones.
Okay, I'm not going to lie, if my phone hadn't been taken away by my mom, I probably would have been on it too. But everything in this perfect picture clicked, the gorgeous summer day, the full-bodied breeze, the tempting brushes of grass against our legs.
"Hey guys," I started, not quite willing to expose how important it was to me that we played like children. "Do you want to do something else? We could go on a nice walk or anything. Really, it's up to you guys." I tore up some grass and tossed it casually, trying to come across as indifferent.
Sera looked up at me, face arranged in a surprised, half-smile. Like she was happy I was here but had also forgotten I was. "Oh, like what?" She took what was undoubtedly a dazzling selfie, and I already knew the caption would be some one-liner about how summer should never end. She fixed her hair and grinned at me self consciously, her almond-shaped eyes crinkling. "Okay, so do you want to go somewhere, eat? I can look some places up."
I felt unreasonably irritated that she didn't understand. "I don't know, we could walk up the hill, look around." Why was it so hard to convey in teenage terms that I wanted to do something fun without our phones? I wanted them to dream and peer inside their heads like they used to, enacting battles or letting slip their love of villains.
Raf glanced up, laughing. He also did that stunned, double-take, like he had totally forgotten his friends were here. "Are we doing something?" He asked, his phone distracting him immediately with a buzz. "Sorry, Marcy needs my help..." He trailed off, gazing at his phone. It was almost funny since he didn't gaze at Marcy like that in school.
Also, help with what? She needed someone to tell her that her self-deprecating, airy-fairy jokes were funny? I clenched the grass in my fist, unable to yell at them because I would look like a madman and was unable to explain why it mattered.
It mattered that I used to be their friend, that I used to have some job besides providing answers to homework and one-second conversations. I used to be able to talk to these guys, and all of a sudden that was impossible unless my crisis or opinion came with a hashtag and two-line explanation on a five-second Instagram story.
Not to sound insane, but I think my job is gone, outsourced to some heartless robot that curates everything my friends see and care about.
"I'm going for a walk," I declared, without asking if any of them would like to come. Cassidy and Sera shared a look I decided to ignore, and I left, desperately trying to walk normally.
My mom and dad had friends from college that they dialled up to talk with. They spoke about everything and anything, sharing intimate details of my life and theirs, comfortably laughing and agreeing to meet.
I couldn't trust my friends with a thing. I was so worried about being judged, even the minutest feelings, thoughts, or worries I shared were rigorously edited to seem cool and 'on brand'. I wanted something like that, where I could talk to Raf for hours about soccer or university, and it could be a serious, and meaningful call. Not both of us mindlessly agreeing with everything the other said, and only pitching in awkwardly if something really interested us.
Before we used to race to each other's houses, asking if so-and-so was free and whining if they were busy. Our friendship even survived that phase where little girls and boys hated each other. Now, everything was messed up.
I wanted Cassidy to look me in the eye, so I could gauge if there was actually something between us, or I was just touched in the head. I didn't want to slide into her DMs, or message her, or call. I wanted it to be a goddamn connection that wasn't wifi.
The grass danced and bent with the wind, gently corralling me up the windswept hills, and I found it. Our old place, the place were Raf chipped his tooth, and Cassidy asked about boys, and Sera blurted out that she was gay. This is the place I want back.
But without the addition of three other kids, it isn't that. This here is a quiet mausoleum to a time where I used to be a friend. Before people just barely hung onto my words, forever on the edge of being pulled away by a beep, buzz, or notification.
I hated that Cassidy found internet nerds to talk to all morning and night, that she found a community so she didn't have to pull us into her projects.
I used to complain like any self-respecting teenage boy would, but more and more I missed taunting her about explosions and helping her with tools.
I hated that Sera found people to rightfully gush over how pretty she was, and celebrate her achievements with. But I despised how I just became one of many likes, a mere firefly compared to the forest fire of perfectly worded compliments she received.
I also missed being the guy she sent on 'scouting missions', to see if girls were gay or interested in her. The inside jokes, the ribbing, learning how to skateboard together to be edgy. All that basically evaporated now.
I hated how Rafael overcame all the awkwardness of our shared and depressing middle school years. He had become tall and imposing, free of braces, his acne cleared up, and he found a girlfriend and wasn't half bad at being popular.
While I could thankfully say goodbye to those traumatic years, a part of me was choked with pride, while another bristled when he smoothly picked up girls.
Gone were our crazy days of learning parkour together, trying on our dads' suits, and practising the cheesiest pickup lines on earth.
I loved my friends, but I hated not being their friend. And maybe it was harder to notice when you were attached to that screen, taking the high of using it. But I was realizing now all my mom's warnings about screens and spending time in the real world.
My friends had gone from actual adventurous to social media bio adventurous. They had become shadows of who they were, obsessed with something or another connected to technology. I didn't need to consult with Raf anymore about what to wear to a date, both of us had the internet. Sera didn't need me to blushingly harass attractive girls, she had apps for that. Cassidy never did that adorable thing where she enthusiastically explained science concepts. I missed that, watching her dark eyes widen, and her near-perfect speech stutter as she passionately explained a molecular pathway or something.
Anyways, I don't stay depressed for too long. It takes too much effort, and I think technology has eaten my focus away.
Even this minor bout of thinking, about friends, being human, being me, that's all going to fade. I probably won't even have regrets on my deathbed, because I'll be perusing something on the internet or my phone or whatever then too.
I mean for now, I think, so I'm human. But in an hour, in two days when my mom hands my phone back? It starts slow, assignments, convenient calls with friends, group messages. And then it becomes annoyance when the group message interferes with your youtube video, so you mute it. And then you never really check anyways, slowly missing out on developments in your friends' lives because who needs to meet when you have the miracle of technology?
So you don't meet, but when you do, God, it's different. Your friends have forgotten the stone castle that once held banquets and playdates. They've abandoned a certain wizard who pines after an alchemist, and instead, they sit.
They sit in a green-gold field, surrounded by mystery, excitement, and beauty so complete you could never need Pinterest again. But it doesn't matter, because they don't need to think when they have phones. Nor do they need friends.