“Pres? Pres, can you stop what you’re doing for one second and listen to me?”
Preston Philips looked up from his iPhone where he’d been checking his mail. He’d set his phone’s vibration to a different frequency for all modes of communication, whether it be email, news, weather, facetime, conference call, wife calling, the kids, wake-up, go-to-bed, take-your-pills, and more.
“What is it, Jane?”
“I want you to look around and tell me what you see.”
Preston felt a new vibration; this one signaled his mother was calling.
“It’s my mother; let me text her and say I’ll call her back.”
Jane walked over to where Preston was seated in his usual corner of the room, next to the side table littered with different remotes for control of myriad electronics; television, sound bar, window blinds, lights, atmosphere, security, home theater, and more. She held out her hand.
“May I see your phone?”
Preston hesitated, then slowly placed his phone in the palm of his wife’s hand.
“Now, have I your complete attention?”
“Jane, what . . . yes, all right. Yes, you do. What’s on your mind?”
Jane gestured to the hallway which led to their son, Kevin, and daughter, Kendall’s bedrooms.
“What do you imagine our children are doing right now?”
“Probably on their phones or computers or . . .”
“When’s the last time you had a verbal conversation with either one of them?”
Preston didn’t respond.
“That’s my point. And we hardly talk anymore. Our lives have been reduced to motions. We have become so regimented that we don’t even think about anything anymore. It’s all done for us. We press buttons; that’s practically all we do. I can’t imagine what life will be like for Kevin and Kendall when they’re our age.”
“What’s brought all this on, Jane? Something happen?”
Jane sat at the end of the couch closest to her husband.
“What are we really getting out of all this media, Pres? The world news only gets worse and worse. It used to be easier to read it than to watch it, but now even that’s gotten intolerable. Soon we’re going to be informed about all the catastrophes and tragedies happening in the universe on other planets – and all just more information about things we can do nothing about. Frankly, being surrounded by all this technology makes it virtually impossible to escape.”
“You want to escape?”
“Control, Pres. That’s what I want. Remember that? Before we got married, remember what we talked about? Fulfilling our dreams, our destinies, raising a family and remaining true to our values and goals.”
“Aren’t we doing that?”
“Pres, you wait for a signal before you use the bathroom.”
“I do not!”
“Well, you might just as well, considering how much time you spend with this phone prompting your – almost – every move.”
“And do you have any suggestions or is this just to vent? I do get what you’re saying, by the way.”
Jane peered into Preston’s phone and tapped a few taps, then handed it back to him.
“Step Back Haven?”
“Had enough of the tech age leading you down a road of dependency and conformity? Running out of room to store all that information coming at you from all angles, whether you like it or not? How would you like to raise your own children; be hands-on, the way parenting used to be? Has the age-worn concept of convenience turned into a controlling monster and your options shrunk to the size of a microchip? Would you like to determine your own path, free of the technology-driven lifestyle? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, Step Back Haven may be just the place for you.”
Preston paused, looked at Jane.
“And the beauty of it is, Pres, Step Back has limited capacity so it’s exclusive, meaning it’s private, secret placement, location. It’s the key to changing our lives, for the better.”
“How come I’ve never heard of it?”
“Ads are private, too, personal invitation only. I was expressing some of these very concerns with one of Kendall’s educational programmers during our last video conference and she told me about it. She messaged me her private coordinates so we were off-grid. I just got all this today and couldn’t wait to tell you about it. What do you think?”
“Well, I need to know more. What about the kids? Won’t they suffer, being taken out of their norm?”
“Really, Pres? Think about it. We’d be saving them. This is no life, not really. Remember what life was before we had all this techno weighing us down? What are we really going to miss? There is a world out there, you know, and it doesn’t have to be governed by anyone but ourselves.”
“It’s tempting, Jane. Let me take a better look at all this.”
“Sure, Hon. Take a step back.”
* * *
“Why are mom and dad doing this to us?”
Kevin shook his head. He hadn’t spoken a word since they’d been informed of “the plan.” Preston had couched it as a “family discussion,” but both children had been so dumbstruck by what they were being told, they’d been speechless and unable to participate in any sort of dialogue, both then and now.
Kevin, being 9, had enjoyed two years more than Kendall had of the life they were leaving behind. His fingers twitched from having nothing to hold and he hadn’t stopped gritting his teeth since the announcement.
Kendall, strapped into the back seat next to him, was the first to whisper the question foremost on both of their minds. Kevin’s non-answer brought fresh mist to her pretty blue eyes and she blinked furiously while her mouth pressed into a pout that threatened to erupt like a broken dam.
She felt Kevin’s hand press on hers and, seeing her brother’s reassuring expression, followed by a half-grin, she instantly felt better. She breathed and wiped her eyes.
* * *
Preston pulled the family car into a parking lot that appeared to be deserted. It was part of an abandoned plaza that had boards over most of the windows and more weeds than concrete that made up the sidewalk. He drove behind the buildings and parked, away from view of the main road.
Jane turned to face Kevin and Kendall.
“Where we’re going is so private, remember I told you, that we’re going to be picked up here and taken to our new home. They’ll even drive our car so we’ll have it when we get there.”
Kendall asked a question. “But then we’ll know how to get there, right?”
“Kendall, I’m so glad you asked me that. I’m so happy you’re talking,” Jane gushed. “I’ll answer all your questions. We’ll be taken there in a van with darkened windows so we won’t be able to see where we’re going.”
Preston broke in, “And anytime we want to go out of town, this is the procedure we’ll use. It’s really for the sake of keeping where we’ll be living special.”
Kendall’s expression grew cloudy. “What’s so special about losing all our stuff and our friends, too?”
“Kenny, remember what we talked about,” said Jane. “What we’ll be gaining will be so much more than what you think you’re losing. Trust us, sweetheart, we wouldn’t make a move like this if we didn’t think it was going to be amazing for all of us.”
“But . . .”
“Will you just wait and see, Kenny, please? You’ll never know unless you try it. This is an adventure and we’re going to see it through together. Think you can do that?”
Kendall glanced at Kevin, who was staring at something outside the window. Then, she saw it, too.
* * *
The doors were opened and light flooded the van, making the Philips family squint for a moment before their eyes adjusted.
“Welcome to Step Back Haven!”
All four stepped out and took in their surroundings.
The gravel drive was surrounded by trees. When the sun could sneak its way through some of the sparser areas, it cast glistening beams of light to whatever stone wall, patch of bright green grass or expanse of wildflowers it showcased. And then, a short distance to the right of them, a flagstone path led to a modern A-frame home made up of teak balconies and glass that rose to the rooftop. White smoke wafted lazily from the stone chimney.
“It’s like a fairytale.” Kendall’s eyes grew large.
Jane and Preston looked at each other and smiled, then turned their attention to the man who had spoken. They recognized him as the agent who had handled their application. He held a clipboard in his hand, wore a brown suit, pencil moustache and round glasses. When he smiled, he gave off serious Willie Wonka vibes.
“We are so glad to have you. I’m Reginald Waldo and I’m so pleased to meet you all in person. As you may remember, my operations are outside of S-Back because there is no reception here, thank goodness. This is Compound 111, and everything is ready for you. Your car with all of your belongings will be here shortly. In the meantime, would you like a tour of your new abode?”
The Philips eagerly followed Reginald, who continued to jabber away. Kevin hung behind the others. He looked back at the four attendants who had opened their doors. They all wore black suits, dark glasses.
“Come on, Kevin!” Kendall’s voice.
M.I.B., he thought to himself, this is 'majorly intense bull'. Then he ran to catch up with the others.
* * *
The house was everything they’d been told it would be. It was designed with minimal décor, just enough to make it homey without being at all cluttered. The kitchen was modern, though it also had a large fireplace that housed a brick oven. Just outside, there was a vegetable garden and . . .
“Chickens!” Kendall spied them first. “Can I go see the chickens?”
Reginald smiled. “Let’s wait until after the tour, shall we? Then I’ll show you where the corn is kept and you can feed them. How’s that?”
Kendall nodded, beaming.
“I see we have a little farmer in the making,” Reginald smiled at Jane and Preston, then guided them into their living room.
“No television.” Kevin whispered to Kendall. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got chickens!” Kendall shot back.
Kevin shook his head and thought, traitor. Jane watched their exchange while Preston was discussing something with Reginald.
There’s going to be push-back, Jane thought to herself. It’s natural. Let it play out. It’s going to take time.
* * *
During the tour of the inside and the outside of the A-Frame, the Philips’ car had been delivered, along with their belongings. Reginald left them to get settled and said he’d be available if they needed anything, just to reach out using the walkie-talkie set up in Preston’s home office.
Jane got busy in the kitchen, while Preston took the children outside to get to know the animals they’d be living with and would be supplying them with most of their eggs and dairy.
Kevin had begun talking; he had too many complaints built up and couldn’t keep them to himself any longer.
“It stinks out here! I can’t breathe. Aren’t there any stores? Why can’t we just order what we need? How come we have to be Old MacDonald all of a sudden? This is so stupid! Why are you doing this to us?”
Preston put a hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “Kev, I know this is all new and foreign to you and your sister. We’re asking you to give it a chance. Your mom and I see this as a change for the better and we think you will, too.”
“But why?” Kevin felt hot tears behind his eyes. “It’s so backwards! I liked my life before. I didn’t ask for this! And I don’t want it!”
With that, Kevin broke away from Preston and ran towards the green barn behind the house where two cows, a goat and a barn cat resided. Ruffled chickens squawked and scattered out of his path.
Kendall looked up at her dad.
“I don’t mind the smell so very much.”
Preston smiled. “I’m glad, honey. We’ll just give Kevin time to get used to all this and try to help when we can, okay?”
“Want to get some of that corn and try feeding these feathered rascals?”
“Hey, no fair – you got a head start!”
Jane watched them from the kitchen window, smiled, then sighed. She saw Kevin storm away from the barn, holding his nose.
* * *
That evening, Jane tried her hand at homemade pizza, using the brick oven and the pizza paddle she’d found in the pantry. She was a little out of her element, but had watched enough Food Network to know she’d always wanted to try this. The end result was uneven, to say the least, but no one complained. It was a testing ground at this point and, besides, Kendall’s focus was on dessert, s’mores to be assembled and enjoyed around the fire pit that came with the property.
Kevin claimed not to be hungry and stayed in his room.
He hated to admit it but he liked his room, a lot. The bed had an Avengers spread on it, lamps resembling rocket ships and the ceiling was a painted galaxy overhead. He had a bookshelf that was packed with his favorites but, still, he missed his iPad. That’s where his library and most of his life had been.
He boiled at the thought his parents could give so much only to take it all away in a flash. The bitterness he swallowed made his stomach a churning pit. His parents had mentioned something about regaining control; well, how did that work when it meant he had none? Squat. Didn’t his life matter? I hate them, I hate this, I hate . . .
“Kevin? We’re having dessert by the fire pit. Want to join us?”
“May I come in?”
“Well, is there anything I can get you?”
“Join us if you want. We’d love it if you would.”
When he could hear footsteps going away, Kevin let his tears out.
After a while, he could hear voices and the faint pop and crackle of a fire. He glanced at his window and could see sparks flitting about like fireflies. He watched, slightly mesmerized by the sights and sounds. He felt his stomach calm and realized he might be hungry.
No, he said to himself. They can’t think I’m okay with any of this. Stay put. You can go a day without dinner.
He slowly stood and went to his window and looked out. Looking down, he saw the bright yellow-white of burning logs, sparks flying as flames licked the air. He had to admit the fire smelled better than the barn. He could also smell the remnants of wood-fired pizza. He saw Kendall’s face smeared with chocolate and marshmallow. His stomach spoke up.
“Oh, who cares.”
Kevin wiped his eyes, left his room and went to the staircase. The house looked so different at night. The blonde wood of the walls glowed amber from the lighting in the living room. There was an orange hue to everything that was warm and inviting, much more so than the sterile white walls of their old house. Kevin had never really noticed his surroundings like this before. His mind always had more important things going on, like how he was going to make it to the next level of . . .
Well, let’s not go there. Kevin thought a new thought. I’ll grow up one day and then I can do whatever I want. And I’ll never, ever do to my kids what they’re doing to me. I don’t care what it is, I won’t ruin their lives on a whim, some stupid idea that means turning your back on the perfect life. I will never understand how parents can be so clueless.
Kevin entered the kitchen. There were live embers in the fireplace that exuded a smoky warmth that enveloped him like a blanket. He breathed deeply and then remembered he was hungry. He hadn’t looked in the pantry before but, as he did now, his eyes took in the bounty before him. There were racks of cans and bottles of every color and description. There were sacks of grains and flour and beans. He could smell the coffee from where he stood. Some day I’ll be old enough, he thought. His eyes lit on what he was really looking for. Peanut butter.
He took another look around, saw a loaf of bread, whole grain naturally. Well, some things don’t change. He shrugged and brought the items out to the kitchen counter. He located silverware on the first try, a plate on his second. He assembled his dinner in no time and took a mammoth bite before opening the refrigerator. Milk. Hmm, glasses?
Kevin grabbed his sandwich in one hand and took his milk to the backdoor. He tucked the glass in the corner of his arm, only spilling a little. He opened the door and received a face-full of smoky heat.
Kendall raced over to him.
“Watch it, I’ve got milk!”
Kendall held his sandwich for him while he carefully retrieved the glass from his arm.
“Sit over here, Kevin, by me. Look at the fire; it’s dancing!”
Kevin glanced at his parents quickly and, without a word, joined them.
Preston, pokerfaced, looked at Jane and then at Kevin.
Kevin bit into his sandwich and mumbled.