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art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson

The Future Faire

The sign comes first. It hovers high in the sky, projecting green neon light, and we believe it because we don't have technology like that.
Site of the first ever Future Faire.
Mysterious builders spend several summer weeks carving a circular clearing within the dense forest at Portland's edge. We're allowed to observe, at a distance of course.
When opening day arrives, we stand in an unmoving line with thousands of strangers, modest admission fee clutched tightly in our hands. I'm curious why people from the future would need cash, but my father says, "Business is business, no matter when you're from."
Mom and I laugh at that.
Eventually, the coolness of early morning wears off and the sun crests the distant cedars. My father shifts his weight back and forth a few times and I wait for his outburst. He smacks his palm with the back of his hand. "If only we'd been rich, we could've bought him the Cochlear 2--"
Through my caption glasses I see my mother stare at my father. He glances at me like he's revealed some secret I shouldn't know.
I know what a Cochlear Model 2 is. Hearing for the wealthy. And I know what my caption glasses are. Hearing for the poor.
A blinding light interrupts our tension. Some sort of noise causes those around me to thrust their hands over their ears. I blink, and a translucent dome appears all at once in the clearing.
People have traveled back in time.
Those in line cheer and my glasses become littered with caption bubbles full of exclamation points and graphical hands clapping.
We amble forward, and eventually, my parents and I step through the de-tech dome, and the Future Faire stretches out before us. A dozen big-top tents strategically pock a landscape brimming with carnies hawking future-games of skill.
I look down. The ground is dry earth, brown and cracked, flattened by workers' feet.
"Tyler?" My name floats across my glasses in a bubble with an arrow pointing toward my mom. I look up. "Meet back here in an hour, okay?"
I nod vigorously. She hands me a brochure containing a map of the faire and I read the words listed in all caps on the front cover. NO TECHNOLOGY IS TO LEAVE THE FAIREGROUNDS!
"I'm going to Future Vid-Games." I subvocalize, and my glasses' mini-speakers verbalize my lie for my parents. They always believe me because my electronic voice was programmed to be emotionless, and my eyes are blurred behind a cloudy display.
On the map, I trace a route to the Medical Pavilion with my finger.
Unfortunately, that would take me past Future Vid-Games and Future Movies. What will video games be like? Or are there just more crane machines whose claws don't grip cheap toys?
I run past the game tent, ignoring the excited faces of the boys lining up to enter, but I slow when the scent of barbequing sausages drifts past my nose. I'm starving, but so are dozens of others willing to brave another long line. I turn, and keep running.
Atop the Medical Pavilion is a white flag emblazoned with a red cross flapping in the breeze. My heart is pounding from my run and brimming with excitement. Soon, I might be able to hear. Really hear.
I stop at the threshold and keyword ear, hear, hearing, Cochlear, deaf, and aural so they'll appear in a red caption on my glasses.
Then I step inside.
Dozens of caption bubbles saturate my vision. Arrows point every which way and I try to keep up by jerking my head all around. The words inside the bubbles shrink as more words fill the tiny ovals. I can't process and delete them fast enough.
"The Earrific repairs all functions of the inner ear."
The sentence appears in red and the caption bubble arrow points deep in the crowd. I push my way through thick-bodied people, following the red words until I find their speaker.
A young future doctor waves what looks like a pen back and forth. Those that can hear, everyone, move swiftly past, ignoring what doesn't concern them.
I wave to get his attention and he looks down. He balks when he sees my glasses, but then smiles and leans forward, showing me the pen. I see the word Earrific written in tiny, silver letters.
I shrug. If I speak, he'll hear my electronic voice.
He nods like yeah, he gets that kids don't care, but they really do. Then he holds the tip in my left ear and a moment later the world explodes.
Noises assault my head, crashing into my skull. I feel off-balance, like the sounds are dragging me down. I clench my teeth, tilt my head, and point. The doctor presses the pen into my other ear and there's a whoosh and the volume in the room doubles.
I can hear. I can hear! My nose tingles and my throat constricts. I lift my glasses a moment to rub the back of my hand across my eyes.
"Cool, right? We programmed it to sound like a conch shell simulating the ocean. Course, I suggested it just sound like the ocean." I read his words in my glasses fine, but what I hear is a jumble, like he's spoken one very long word.
I take in the environment of the pavilion, connecting sights to sounds. I see/hear the shuffling of feet, the muddled mess of conversations, the whir of the ceiling fans above. How do people sort so many competing noises?
I look up at the doc and mouth, "Thank you." My machine voice repeats the words and I hear my own voice for the first time.
He backs away. "Wait. You're deaf?"
I shake my head. "Not anymore."
Terror mars his features. I reach out to shake his hand but he backs into the Eariffic's display case. It falls over and smashes into countless glass shards. The sound pierces my ears and I flinch.
My mother appears. How did she know? She pulls my hands from my ears, inspecting them. "Are you hurt?"
Her voice is sweet, softer than the doc's, and not as rough as my surroundings, which have gone mercifully quiet.
"No." I try to speak, but the word comes out as a cough.
My mother stands erect and stares down at me. She turns, eyes the broken display, then turns back. "What was in this case?"
The tone of her words is angry. Or perhaps I've simply read her stiff posture and coiled muscles like usual.
For the first time in my life I can hear, and she's mad.
My mother shakes her hands like she's drying them after washing, but I recognize her method of trying to relax. "I had a feeling you'd come here." She hugs me and I feel safe. Protected. The noise in the room picks up again.
Several authoritative-looking men show up. "Is this him?" asks one. He looks mean and hard-edged. His pale-gray business suit appears glued to his body, like it was his skin instead of his clothes.
The worried-looking doc shadows them. "Yeah, I had no idea the kid was deaf. How many kids are deaf?"
I read and hear the words at the same time and I'm giddy with happiness. Someday, when the spoken words make sense, I won't need my glasses ever again.
"These people are from the past, Doctor. Many of them were deaf or blind or had some disease."
"You can fix this, right? Make him deaf again?" asks the doc.
I look at him in horror. My mother and I both say, "No."
The man leans close, his eyes narrow with scrutiny. Despite being in my mother's arms, his stare freezes me. "No technology is to leave the fairegrounds."
"Stay away from my son," says my mother.
"Ma'am." He straightens. "The faire is look but don't touch. That's the law." He growls a little after he's done speaking.
I don't like the sound of his voice. I burrow deeper into my mother's arms.
"He doesn't possess any technology," says my father from nearby. He pushes an onlooker aside and I feel even safer now that he's arrived.
"I'm afraid he does, sir. We have to... he has to come with us. We'll reverse this privately."
I hear a steady noise in the distance, pleasant and uplifting. "Is that music?" I ask. The melody diffuses some of the tension in my body and I feel connected to it somehow. Or it's connected to me.
The mean man huffs. A caption appears with an ellipsis. Impatience? Exasperation? At last, he answers, "It's just a generic faire tune from the public domain."
I concentrate on the distant music the best I can. My body wants to move with it. I want to dance.
"We're leaving." My mother grabs my arm and we move behind my father. The music gives way to more pressing sounds. I try to focus, to hold on to it, but I don't know how.
The room's population has thinned. Guards block the two exits. What type of future weapons might they carry? Lasers that could level entire mountains? Machines to flatten the Earth, like they'd done to this former hillside?
The man holds out his arms, like he'd carry me--somewhere. "Please understand, Ma'am. If he leaves, a paradox could occur. Your son could kill us all."
My father confronts the man. His posture says he's ready to fight. "Did you not think of this before you came?"
The man's hardened expression softens and he appears regretful. "We thought if no physical technology--"
"Wait," I interrupt. "I'll go."
"No." My mother squats and grips my arms. "We're taking you home."
I don't know why I'm suddenly so brave, but hearing makes me feel invincible. Is this how everyone feels all the time?
"I know what a paradox is, mom. If I step out of the faire, we all blink out of existence." I snap my fingers and hear the sound. I'll remember it, and all the other sounds I'm collecting. My mother's voice. My father's voice. They can't undo my memories.
"What are the risks?" my father asks. He doesn't seem convinced to let them take me, but I think he's beginning to understand--I screwed up.
The mean man turns to the doctor hovering over his right shoulder who says, "Well, we don't have the technology to remove someone's hearing. I... I'll have to improvise."
"You are not taking him," my mother says.
I turn and look into her eyes for a change, instead of staring into the words on my glasses. "Say something nice. I just want to remember."
Tears pool in my mother's eyes and she speaks very slowly. "I love you, Tyler."
I smile through the pain in my chest. I'll be strong--for them. My mother holds me until strong hands grip my shoulders and pull me away.
In an isolated, well-lit room, they plop me on a padded recliner. A sea of device-like pens litter a metal tray to my left.
My parents hover just outside. They aren't allowed in.
"I'm sorry about this, kid. I really am." The mean man shakes his head in resignation. "I thought we'd planned for every possibility." He backs away and the doc who gave me hearing grabs one of the pens.
He looks at it with uncertainty then leans over me, blocking out the overhead light. "I'm going to try curing you again. Perhaps a second cure will overload your auditory canals." He shrugs, and there's nothing scarier than a doctor shrugging.
I close my eyes and hum the tune I heard earlier. I'd like to think it's a song that plays at weddings. A grand, sweeping song of love and passion and joy.
It's the only song I'll ever know and it's the most beautiful song in the world. Played just for me.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Author Comments

This story came about after attending a Renaissance faire. I thought, what if this were the other way around? Then I asked, is the future utopian, and would those with the means travel back for the benefit of mankind, gifting us with insight into our future? If yes, would they charge an admission fee? My hope is that this story leaves you to contemplate how you'd feel if you had your greatest wish fulfilled, but only for a short time. Would you feel bitter, and mournful? Or would you feel satisfied, and cherish the memory always....

- Dustin Adams
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