Symptoms

By Jen Knox

Rolling the ball of her mother’s carpal-friendly mouse, Ani woke the hibernating laptop to find an unfamiliar screen. The last person in the office, a balding guy Marie had called an impudent beast because he’d devoured the last package of peanut butter cookies without asking, must’ve changed the default from Chrome. This new search engine’s logo was a cyan ball with big, cartoon eyes that glanced toward the text box when she hovered the cursor around it. Ani steadied herself as she typed.

Rapid heartbeat, nausea, confusion, dizziness.

“Ani, we need those sheets changed.” Marie hustled down the hall with a bottle of window cleaner and a bundle of newspaper. Her dark hair was held in a high bun that looked like it’d fall out if she turned her head too quickly, and she was still wearing the loose cotton pants and tank top that she called her pre-guest outfit.

“They’re in the dryer, Mom.”

The computer stalled. The impudent beast must’ve forgotten to clear the cache. She refreshed, noticing that the camera light was blinking purple instead of red. When the same old links came up, she deleted the search and began to type impudent, just to be sure.

“Your list is on the counter, girlie.”

Ani closed out the definition tab and quickly checked Jason’s Facebook, then his Twitter and Instagram pages. Jason, who had been her friend and crush since elementary. They had been in band together, had marched so close that she could smell the salt on his skin when he sweated. Since her father quit his job, Ani could no longer afford the uniform. Meanwhile, she thought of him often. Jason lived behind a gate on Warren Street, the Park Place of Columbus, and would never have to turn his home into a rental. Jason, who—

“Ani, really!”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Is it happening again?” Marie asked, reappearing in the doorway as though teleported.

Since Ani’s father quit his job, she’d stopped seeing her psychologist and spent far too much time at home, online, reading political news that frightened her to no end. As far as her mother knew, her panic attacks had subsided, but they still hit every time a new guest was due. The idea of finding a new therapist covered by their new insurance was more frightening than the anxiety itself. Besides, Ani knew there would be a $40 deductible and a 90% chance that the therapist would be crazier than her.

“I’m fine.”

Marie lingered in the doorway, and her eyes remained on Ani even as she turned away. “In that case—”

“Coming right now!” Before Ani shut down the computer, a pop-up appeared. Good morning, Ani. Have you considered online counseling? I can help you with your MILD DEPRESSION /and/ GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER.

Her eyes lingered on the text, head spinning sideways like Uranus, the martyr planet of astrophysical violence. Ani’s senior-year science teacher had said it was like the planet took a hook to the chin. He’d made the comparison shortly after life as Ani knew it fell apart. She had written in her notes: I feel ya, Uranus.

She closed the text box, and her phone buzzed. She looked down to find the same purple box and yellow text. I can help while you run errands. Click here!

“Ani!” Marie’s voice could crack cement.


Running a bed and breakfast had been an act of desperation, rather than a dream realized, as some of the guests and kids at Ani’s high school seemed to think; nonetheless, mother and daughter took care with every detail and worked to appear overjoyed by every guest’s joke or kind word. They had to. After Ani’s father strolled away from his job, then their home on a mid-life whim, they were down a programmer’s salary and up a mortgage payment.

“You can have the house, Valentine,” he’d told Marie the day he left. “I won’t be out of the picture. I promise you that. I love you both, just need to find myself.”

He’d always called her Valentine, but Ani, who’d been eavesdropping from the hall, noticed that his voice had the texture and saccharine-sour taste of cough syrup that day. He was a man she no longer knew – a man who was explaining why he had to find himself, even though it seemed he had no clear plan or remorse for the upset in their universe.

He’d upgraded her iPhone before quitting, as a sort of consolatory gift, she supposed, as though that’d be a distraction. A two-bit magician whose disappearing act was about as clunky and transparent as they came. He was gone from their day-to-day lives, popping up whenever he felt like it.


It was the meticulous who preferred 102 W. Harrison over the $50/night options down the street that would leave a guest picking cat hair off his pants or spraying extra perfume to offset the incense. But the meticulous were, well, demanding. All it took was one bad Yelp review.

As she walked toward the kitchen, almost tripping over their cat, Ani clicked on the Terms and Conditions for the app. Must allow access to camera, contacts, pictures … Standard. She put the phone in her back pocket and double-checked the fridge and cabinets. “Ma, no allergies?”

“None.”

Ani wasn’t so sure that panic at each new guest’s arrival was a sign of anything but logic. The truth is, they’d been lucky, statistically speaking, that no guest had been psychotic to this point, but each lucky occurrence nudged her and her mother closer to a catastrophe. A lot of people had been in their home in the last two years, and one of them was bound to be a sociopath. The next one could be it for them, the end. Ani stared at the cabinet, the grainy wood, a single crack.

Marie cleared her throat. “What’s with you today, sweetie? Are you having a bad one? Need me to go to the store?”

“Oh no. Sorry, Mom. I got the list. Who’s up?”

“A newlywed couple in their late-twenties, I think. They’re probably here for the OSU game, and they didn’t try to negotiate, so it’s good timing. The mortgage is due in a week. Make sure we’re stocked up on everything I didn’t include, will you?”

“Sure. Yes.” Ani noticed her mother’s bun was limping to the right. She felt her phone vibrate. The message was bright, a purple color like the light. Free Trial. She clicked it. Downloading.

Marie cracked her neck, nudging her sharp chin to the left, then the right. “They asked for an early check-in.”

“I’m on it. Quick shower, then I’m gone.” Showers always provided some relief. Ani realized they were low on the lavender soap they offered guests. She put her hair up in a wet ponytail and rushed on some clothes, then caught herself in the mirror, wondering why she didn’t naturally stand straight. Early-onset osteoporosis?

Just before leaving, house keys in hand in case her mother was out back, Ani quickly typed hunched shoulders, can’t relax into her phone. The search engine ball bounced once before leading Ani to a page on anxiety. It was a new page, but the same information repackaged. A side textbox popped up.

Thanks for signing up via your mobile device. Begin now. Create a password. I can answer your query about early-onset osteoporosis – you don’t have it J.

Ani created a password and used her name as the log-in. Instead of typing, she pressed audio entry and asked: “How can I relax?”

Go to the store, and while you’re there, take deep breaths. Focus on the task at hand. 


Ani took her time in the bread aisle. She checked her list, then lingered in front of the multigrain selection. She was doing a good job of focusing, relaxing, when she thought about Natural Born Killers. She imagined the couple coming today would seem absolutely fine at first, bus she’d overhear them talking. The most notorious killers were charismatic, and they’d likely charm Marie.

Ani’s phone vibrated. She ignored it. It chimed. Breathe. Focus. Ani, you have a great imagination, but it is getting away from you right now.

Ani breathed. This thing was hella-intuitive. She grabbed a few boxes of granola and a tub of yogurt, trying to remain unbothered by a man whistling behind her. She felt everything tense, as her heart pulsed her entire body. There was something wrong with people who whistled in grocery stores.

The dizziness became unbearable, and the lightness in Ani’s extremities was outright uncomfortable.

Turn. Find a seat.

She didn’t put her phone down. In fact, she was gripping it as though it were a ledge she was dangling from. When she turned, despite her physical state, she didn’t expect to see a murderer or a bear or anything threatening. What she saw was worse.

“Kiddo!”

“Dad?” He whistled now?


Ani had her scruples, but a free mocha and her insatiable curiosity wouldn’t allow her to turn away. Her father asked for a quick, five-minute chat. She could give him that. As he ordered at the counter, she looked down at the small, rectangular screen.

Hi, Ani. Remember, I’m here. Remember to be strong. We’re in this together. It will be therapeutic for you to tell him how you really feel for once. Consider it.

She read and reread the text, until her father returned. “Thanks for the chat, kiddo.”

“I don’t have much to say, Dad. Maybe I should go. Mom’s waiting.”

“I can do this, Ani. I can do the talking. I’m a little dizzy though. Mind if we sit?”

“Oh yeah. I’m dizzy, too.”

“It’s low blood sugar, sweetie.”

Maybe, for you, it’s guilt. She wished she was one of those kids who could say whatever she was thinking. The bold and brave, the go-getter kids. Instead, she watched him rubbing his temples and added, “I get anxiety, too.”

“Low blood sugar,” he repeated. “So. How are you? I just wanted to catch up right quick, while we’re free from your mother.

Your father acts like an overgrown child. “Fine.”

“How are your grades?”

He doesn’t really care. He just thinks he should care. “OK.”

“How’s band?”

You can’t afford it now, thanks to him. “I’m no longer in band.”

“Well that’s too bad, Ani. You know, a girl your age really should be out there in the world, doing social things. It seems your mother always has you cooped up indoors.”

He was nodding his head as though it was such a shame. She noticed a few new wrinkles around his dark eyes; she noticed stubble on his chin, which was a thing she’d never seen on her father. He was neurotic about his clothes and hair, his “presentation to the world.” These small things might’ve been a sign that maybe he did feel things, but in this moment, Ani didn’t care. She just wanted to get away. She looked down at her app.

Speak up for yourself, Ani.

Ani looked up and noticed a familiar pair of yellow and dark-blue Adidas near the cash registers. Then she saw a pair of worn, dark khakis—even on the weekends, how cute! her phone buzzed. Jason’s hair was a little long and held a few curls. She looked at her father and felt suffocated. She looked back at Jason and felt levity. How could one person be so filled with emotions, so privy to the way others made her feel?

You know yourself Ani. You just need to admit it. Begin to realize your strength. TELL HIM HOW YOU FEEL!

Ani placed the phone facedown.

“Why do you keep looking down at your phone? Are you playing that new augmented reality game?” Ani’s father asked, his voice stomped down an octave from annoyance. He seemed proud to know there was an AR game.

Ani wasn’t sure whether she was more annoyed at her phone, her father, or simply the fact that she couldn’t just make them both disappear and go talk to Jason.

“Dad, I love you. I’m related to you, and I love you. But I have to go home now. We have guests coming, and I have work to do. We have rent to pay, and since you left, it’s down to me to help Mom out. I hope you know that. I hope you can see that I’m giving things up so that you can follow your dreams. I hope you see it because I hope it raises the stakes for you.”

“Whoa! Is that a rehearsed speech?” her father asked. “I don’t think I’ve heard you string so many words together in your lifetime.

Ani’s heart was blocking her breath. She was speaking powerfully, regardless, though. She was speaking the way people did on TED talks she’s watched. She wanted to raise her hands toward the sky like Wonder Woman. Yes, she’d rehearsed this. In her mind anyway. “Dismiss me if you want. Whatever, Dad.”

Her father, she feared, would make a scene. Tear her little moment of power in half. Instead, he simply nodded. He began massaging his temples. “Now it’s anxiety. We’ll catch up later, kid. When you calm down.”

He was dismissing her, but she didn’t need him to. She was already walking away.

Good for you. Now, go live your life.


As soon as Jason caught her eye, she felt her muscles dissolve. Her phone buzzed, then chimed, and she looked down to see a message from Marie to grab two packages of almonds.

Ani shifted from foot to foot. Jason was nearing, and she wished she could put him on pause. She thought hard about her question, hoping the phone would sense it. It didn’t. She began to type, “How do I talk to a boy I like without sounding like I’m as nervous as I am?”

Be yourself. He’s approaching you, so there’s no ice to break. Just smile and say hello.

Stammering, just when Jason was close enough to barely hear, she managed, “Hi.”

“Hey, Ani! Long time.”

“You, um, shopping alone?”

Not bad. Keep it up!

“Green grapes and the ingredients for tiramisu. What a list, right?”

Ani’s looked down to find another message from Marie: “Oh. And hurry up!!!!”

“I have to go.”

“That your Dad?” Jason asked.

“Yeah, I guess,” Ani said, not looking around. “I have to get home. We have some vacationers coming to stay with us.”

“That’s right, you have that B&B now. I heard that’s why you stopped showing up to practice. Probably best; your trumpet was a little too good for the group. It made the rest of us look bad.”

Ani smiled, really smiled, before catching herself. He’ll see my crooked tooth. “Nice of you to say. Maybe I’ll go solo one day. The world needs a good trumpet soloist, I think.”

Clever. Your smile is lovely.

“Overdue.”

Ani laughed. She looked back toward the tables by the café and saw that her father was gone. After a brief pause in which she felt something didn’t add up.

“Hey, call me some time,” Jason said. “You still have my number, right? From the band list?”

“Yeah. I do. I will.” She caught herself smiling again.

He held his phone out in front of him and snapped a picture of her. “I have your number, too. Now I’ll see you when you call.”

“I hope that’s a good picture.” She looked around the store, realizing she’d probably be late. The lines were long.

“Oh it is. What, you see a dragon over there or something? I catch them, too. Are you playing Dragon Hunt?” Jason said.

“No. I haven’t opened Pandora’s box yet. I do have a strange search engine now.”

“Anonymous? The one that intuits what you’ll ask it? It freaks me out. I’ve heard it’s the government. One kid, do you know Brooks? Well anyway, he said it’s just a program, the accumulation of all the data you’ve put into the computer throughout your time on it. He said we each have an internet ID like a social or something, so even if you get a new computer, it only takes a few weeks for the ID patterns to prove it’s you. So it takes all this data and creates recommendations for you.”

“It reads your mind?”

“Yeah. Like that.”

I just give good advice.

“Well, I guess that’s good. I thought it was a virus.”

Hey!

Ani smiled brightly—it felt almost natural now, such a sudden change—and rushed off to buy almonds, then find her father. In line, she realized her hair was still wet and she was wearing an outfit that made Marie’s pre-guest get-up look like fine dining wear. She dug around in the pocket of her checkered shorts, then loosened her ponytail, only to tie it into a damp bun.

She’d basically memorized the DSM V, and she knew that it was possible her anxiety had escalated to complete mental breakdown. Who was she to tell her father what was wrong or right? Now she was going to chase him down for a ride? She felt like a completely different person, all due to a few instructions from a machine.

Her father’s car was nowhere in sight, so she jogged home.


She opened the door quietly, to find her mother standing there, arms akimbo. “Come in. I’ll help you put everything away. I can’t believe you were gone an hour. And your father called. He said you two were drinking coffee and reliving the past like a damn Folger’s commercial. What timing that guy has!”

“Sorry, Mom. Look, I saw Jason, remember him? It was a crazy trip, and my phone … the impudent beast put some new search engine on the computer, and now it’s on my phone, and …”

“I shouldn’t have said that about a guest. Look, I’m not mad, but we need to finish cleaning.”

“Ani nodded and got to work. “Mom, what if these people are insane?”

“Ani. Not again.”

The phone began buzzing, but Ani ignored it as she put the groceries away. She imagined simple backpacks loaded with guns. Her phone began to chime. Ani noticed that the phone was ringing, too. The sounds were too much to take in all at once, and the dizziness arrived. She sat down and tried to think about something relaxing, but all she could think about was the oddity of the day. Happening to see her father, to see Jason and this strange man all in the same day.

It’s just a panic attack. You are in control. You will get through this.

By the time Ani saw the car pull up, the house was spotless. It was a black car, a Toyota. The scratch on the side worried her—what could they have hit? The couple were in their mid-forties, not their twenties like she’d thought, and the man was completely bald. His head had no shine to it, even in this humidity and heat, which seemed wrong.

She looked down the street, then the other way, and noticed Mr. Macioci was outside watering his plants. Relief. There would be witnesses if they were a murderous couple. Ani heard Marie calling for her, but her heart was like a train. Her brain ached.

She ran to find the laptop and entered a familiar search after double checking the tape. The search engine was gone; the box was gone. Google was in its place, and a new article by Psychology Today came up first. She read it feverishly, feeling a few beads of sweat behind her knees. She waited for the vibration, but realized she’d left her phone on the steps.

The couple was almost to the door. She could hear the wheels on their bags scraping up the sidewalk. There was a loud knock, then the doorbell. Persistent, geez. Ani looked up toward the door and saw Marie glancing in on her, a calm but worried expression on her face. She’d seen her mother look at her like this before. Just about every time a new guest arrived.

“It’ll be OK, sweetie. Life is what it is. We’ll be OK.”

Ani nodded. She was too dizzy to stand.

She opened Jason’s Facebook page to find a picture of her there, next to a captured dragon. “Ani travels with the best of them” he’d written. “Where has she been this summer?”

“Miss Ani!” two of the comments said. Her name was highlighted in both comments, but she didn’t receive notifications. Ani never used Facebook for her own page, only to see what was going on with the rest of the world. The world that seemed to live in blissful ignorance to the dangers all around them all the time. She needed her phone to tell her what to do. She checked the computer history for the other engine.

Ani looked over and saw the couple. The woman, a light pink bandana around her head, smiled brilliantly. The bald man nodded at whatever she was saying. They were in hiking clothes, not draped in the scarlet and gray as expected. Had they just murdered someone and stashed the body in the woods? No! I refuse to let those thoughts take over. What would my phone say? It’d say to calm down. It’d say they are just people and I’m in control.

Ani stood slowly. She walked toward them, propelled by a desire to appear normal, if for her mother’s sake. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand. The man gripped it lightly. The woman gripped it firmly. They were the chatty type, talking about how they were here for a single night, to stop on their way toward Michigan.

Ani imagined them pulling out Swiss Army knives and approaching her door while she slept. She said, “I love hiking. You must be beat. How about something to drink?” as she eyed her phone on the steps.

She snatched it up and shook it, gripping it tightly as though it could feel her gratitude.

It’s OK. They’re good people.

They asked for water, unsurprisingly, and thanked her. They were the good kind. Ani counted her breaths, the way the article she’d just read recommended. It had suggested this as a measure when having a panic attack. She examined the lavender kitchen tiles and grabbed two glasses that her mother had put in the freezer for the guests. She filled the icy glasses and took a breath.

“Snacks,” Marie whispered. She stood in the doorway, widening her eyes at Ani. “Can you believe I didn’t change? They must think I’m a crazy woman.”

“They came early. I’m sure they don’t care.” Ani opened the cupboard to find a fresh package of peanut butter cookies. Her knees went soft, and she could feel the insistent buzz of her phone.

“Just breathe, sweetie.” Marie responded as she walked off.

Good job today, Ani. Remember, be thankful for the little things. This free trial is now over.

The cyan ball appeared as Ani began to type something else. A purple light blinked, then became red, and Ani noticed the woman with the light pink bandana stood in the doorway, watching her. Ani looked from the screen to the slender woman, her worried brown eyes, and back to the screen. She wasn’t sure what to make of the woman. She didn’t remember buying those cookies. She didn’t know what else to do but grab her knees and rock.

“I think she’s sick. Or having a panic attack,” the guest said.

Ani gripped her phone as though it was a resuscitation device. She looked around the living room, taking in the smooth tiles and old wood cabinets. The room was closing in. Ani hovered a shaky thumb over the buy link. Only $2.99/month. Your mother will understand. I will help her. The app assured her that this would be the right decision. The purple light flashed. It’s just a phase. We’ll get through this together. Take a deep breath.

Ani could make out the blurry outline of a hand in front of her. She looked down at the crisp text offering direction, then back up toward the woman who was an unknown. This woman could do or say or become anything at all. Ani’s thoughts were twisted, prodded like dough, and she felt helpless without guidance. But there was something about the woman’s hand. More direction appeared on the small screen, direction to drink some water, and Ani reached for the woman.

As soon as she was standing, Ani threw the phone toward the linoleum. The screen shattered, and the light went red before flickering out as the phone bounced. Ani looked directly in the stranger’s eyes. Say thank you, she thought, and so she did.

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Jen Knox

Jen Knox / About Author

Jen Knox is a writing coach and community engagement director. Her writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2017, edited by Amy Hempel (Braddock Avenue Books), The Short Story America Anthology, Chicago Tribune, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Narrative, Room Magazine, The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and The Saturday Evening Post. She is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press), which was nominated for the 2015 Pen/Faulkner, and she recently completed a collection of fabulist fiction, The Glass City, which was a finalist for the Italio Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction and won the Prize Americana for Prose. www.jenknox.com

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