They sat in a circle made of real furniture and folding chairs provided by LifeMedia, care of Milton. They all sat, legs jostling, dimly glowing BrightBoxes in nearly every lap. In the center was the coffee table, sponged off and holding a veggie platter. Cookies were being passed around on an blue glass plate one of the guests had brought.
"This is my Thea’s recipe," an old man in a worn vest said as he nudged the cookies along.
The BrightBox in his lap flared, a bright purple exclamation mark. “He put too much nutmeg in, I can smell it. I tried to tell him. I don’t even let him try to make my zucchini bread anymore, he doesn’t knead it well at all!”
Jeanette was hovering at the edge of the circle, but she bowed in to grab a cookie off the plate with a napkined hand. There was scarcely enough space; Milton was sitting on the floor where the TV had been, now pushed into a corner. She took a bite. The flavor wasn’t off at all, she didn’t think— the problem was the texture. Thea’s husband had tried to spare the recipe an egg, or had used white sugar instead of brown. All at once the cookie turned to sand in her napkin.
Jeanette fixed her gaze on Joey, who sat contentedly in the center of the coffee table. This allowed her a full view of the whole lot. They came in many sizes and shapes. Cubes and pyramids and rectangular prisms; spheres, cylinders and amorphous shapes, all glowing in a variety of colors. She thought it was strange to see the other Boxes shining mauve or pastel pink or dark plum; Joey only ever glowed in jewel tones. Their families were many colors and shapes too.
Joey had spoken to all of them before the meeting, so witnessing their corporeal forms was anticlimactic for her. The families should have been a revelation; their features telling of what the Boxes had been like as breathing, moving, bodied individuals. But she cared less and less for that stuff.
"So," Jeanette said, tapping her freshly-painted fingers on the side of the couch, "Welcome everybody. I think everybody’s here?"
Milton nodded eagerly. There was a list with the names and client numbers on a tablet he had balanced on his knees. ”Yes, yup…uh-huh that’s everybody.”
<Everyone.> Lily said.
<Everyone.> Joey and several others echoed.
"So, before we kick off, I’ve taken the liberty of printing us up a schedule for the next month or so," Milton said. He reached for his messenger bag and pulled out a ream of paper. "I’m thinking meeting semi-weekly would be more than sufficient, so that’s what we’re working with now."
The papers came around the room.
"You didn’t mention this to me," Joey said, flashing yellow.
"It’s tentative," Jeanette said.
Milton leaned forward. “Now as you can see, next meeting’s discussion topic is Family Activities. Jeanette and I— and Joey— we’ll be putting together a list of ideas, just fun stuff that BrightBox clients and their families can do together. So if you think of any ideas you want to share before then, you should email me..,”
"Does everybody have Steven’s email?" Jeanette said. Nods passed through the circle.
"Ok, so two weeks after that, the topic is LifeMedia peripheral products-"
"Excuse me. Why don’t we start with introductions?" an old woman’s voice said. It was Thea, the BrightBox with the cookie recipe. Her husband shook his head eagerly in agreement, shaking the jowls that hung below his chin like pendulums.
"Oh. Absolutely. That’s right." Milton said, and forced a tight-lipped smile.
<That’ll keep them busy a spell,> Thea said.
For the Boxes, introductions were useless. They knew it all already. Thea had been a retired philosophy professor. She’d set up a BrightBox account as soon as the company began accepting registration. She died of a heart attack several weeks after.
Beside her, sitting in the hands of a stricken-faced middle-aged woman, was Thompson. He’d offed himself; the gaunt woman holding him was his ex-wife. Joey found it touching that she’d rallied around her former husband and chosen to take care of him, but Lily said it didn’t surprise her. She said that when a difficult person became an object, their family couldn’t resist dragging them back into their homes, their arms, their lives. She said BrightBoxes made ideal pets. She said the mentally ill made ideal BrightBoxes.
On the couch, Lily’s parents were crammed thigh-to-thigh, with Lily’s box resting between them. Her father’s eyes were robed in tears, Joey noticed, and his nose was bulbous and red— whether from drink or grief, she couldn’t tell. Lily’s mother looked like a former model whose beauty had recently been blown away in a strong gust. Lily hadn’t said much about them.
On the corner of the couch sat Edwidge’s box, cradled in the arms of a dark-skinned woman in hospital scrubs. Edwidge’s box was a perfect cube that constantly gleamed light green. She’d killed herself too. That was how Edwidge referred to it— killing herself. Dying by choice. She said it happily. It had been a relief.
Joey had seen photos of Edwidge before she killed herself. She had been a tiny, big-headed girl of 19, bright brown eyes popping out of a skeletal form, dozens of serpentine wires and tubes covering all of her body, coming out of everywhere; her limbs waisted away to twigs. An obscure uncle had left Edwidge with a trust fund for school. When it became clear she would never, ever make it to any real school, Edwidge drained the account and uploaded herself. Her mother’s face was stern, unmoving.
Finally, on one of the folding chairs there was an old lady with hair pinned up in a bird’s nest shape. Her cheeks were perfectly round and apple-red, and there was a sweetness on her breath that Joey could detect from the moment she came in. It was a malty, tannin-rich sweetness. She wore a long, flowery peasant skirt but sat with her legs splayed wide open.
In between the old woman’s legs was a pyramid-shaped BrightBox, her husband’s, who thus far had avoided privately conversing with the other Boxes. When it was the old woman’s turn to introduce herself, she patted the box and said his name was Carlton. She nearly forgot to mention her own name until Jeanette prompted her.
"Oh silly me," she said, patting her warm-looking cheeks. "It’s Andrea, my dear. And I must say, Thea, I’m going to have to ask you for that cookie recipe."
"Maybe you can do it better justice than my husband," Thea said, her box pulsing mauve with each syllable. "Then you’ll have the baking duties for the group."
Andrea grinned, and her plump cheeks nearly swallowed up the rest of her face. Joey couldn’t shift focus from her.
<My husband has never baked ever in my life,> Thea messaged to the other Boxes. <Even when I was in the hospital recovering from my first heart attack, and I begged him for a slice of my pumpkin bread. Absolutely begged. And now that I’m dead he decides to make a half-hearted attempt— and why? Probably so he can get into bed with that old floozy.>
<Cool it, lady,> said Thompson. <Don’t you want him to get laid? I wouldn’t care if my Anya got drilled a little, after all she’s put up with from me. Long as I can watch!>
He cackled in their minds. Milton had begun speaking again but they weren’t listening.
<I think it’s sweet,> Edwidge said. <They’re trying. My mom still tries to read to me at night.>
<It’s futile as all fuck,> Lily said.
Joey said, <Even still. This is how they cope.>
Thea asked, <Does your wife do anything like that, Carlton dear?>
But Carlton didn’t respond. They could feel his consciousness cued into their own; they could feel the cool satisfaction that indicated their messages were being received by him. But he didn’t release any words of his own.
<Maybe he’s pissed you called his wife a ‘floozy’,> Joey said.
<Come on Carl-y,> said Lily. <Come out to play.>
But he didn’t.
The families began discussing their own coping. Jeanette, for her part, wrested the conversation from Milton and described her own pain at the revelation that her twin had died, her convulsive joy at the realization that there was a way to spare Joey from the grave, her longing to feel that things were ‘normal’. Milton leaned forward, rapt, with his head tilted like a confused and attentive dog. Some of the other family members murmured in identification.
Lily lit up crimson and whispered in Joey’s mind, <What a crock of shit, huh?>
Since they had become friends, Lily had never said a word that was sympathetic to the breather’s side of things. Lily’s contempt for Jeanette was redoubled by the fact that Jeanette had chosen to upload her sister without prior consent. Eternal life was not for everyone. It wasn’t even for most.
Joey didn’t know how to respond. <She does lack perspective,> she finally said.
<Why can’t they be happy for us? Can’t they see that we’re better?> said Edwidge. No one had an answer for that either.
When Jeanette finished speaking, she was nearly shivering with sadness, and was digging her nails into Lily’s mother’s hands. Lily’s father threw an arm around his wife and, with a sniffle, began to recount their own struggle.
"We lost our daughter many times,” he said. “The first time, we kept her room exactly as it was. She must have been 13, 14 tops..,"
<Here we fucking go,> Lily said. <Someone distract me from this.>
Joey had nothing to offer. She was too focused on the old woman with the pyramid Box. With the sweet, tea-infused breath. With the knowing eyes and the tawny-headed grandchildren Joey had seen in her dreams.