In an age where everyone lives their lives through a screen, no one has more celebrity status than fashion blogger, Madeline Q. In a chance meeting, Tayler, loner and geek, is introduced to her world of parties, fan worship, and seduction.
But as his own star rises, Madeline Q is arrested for murder. There’s just one problem—there is no corpse. Tayler soon learns that fiction blurs reality on Social Media Central.
|Publisher:||NineStar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
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"IF THIS IS our future, then we're already dead."
I usually sat alone to eat lunch, but this man insisted on talking to me. How dare he? This was my park bench, my place of solitude, even if others were around. I politely smiled and bit into my salad sandwich, yet he continued.
"In my day, we talked to people. We knew what our neighbors were up to. The fact that we even knew our neighbors is a concept lost on these jokers."
I scanned the gardens. It was the same sight every day. People my age addicted to their mobile screens as if their whole world centered behind the glass face. Keystrokes and terse commands took the place of spoken feelings and thoughts.
"Smoke and mirrors for an electronic age," I replied. I took another bite.
"What's your name?" the man asked.
"Tayler. It was the name of a vlogger my mum liked."
He reached out his hand. I placed my sandwich on the brown paper bag in my lap so I could shake.
"I'm Stuart, a relic of a bygone era."
He wasn't exactly a relic. To me, old men on the scrap heap spat bitterness and ignorance in equal measure. He did neither. He was middle-aged and had the gentle face of a charity worker. But he was far from needing charity himself. His white goatee was neatly trimmed, while his thinning hair could have been just groomed by an overpriced hairdresser. And his stylish knee-length burgundy coat could've had him walking into an advertising agency as either model or executive.
He peered at the soulless beings scattered through the park, all of them representing just one of a larger tribe. Their fellow natives supplied moments of importance on the devices, and at times, their own faces signaled their moment to shine. But a new comment meant the baton had passed to the next person who needed the spotlight.
"That's why they like their small screens," said Stuart. "It presents a world bigger than them, without needing the confidence to venture into that world. Look at them. The screens are smaller than the individual. Everything in perfect proportion." He paused. "Where's your small screen?"
"I use an old phone." I pulled it from my shirt pocket. "I refuse to get involved with Social Media Central."
"Wise man." He pulled out his media device, also vintage.
"A time when a phone was just a phone," I said.
"I told you I'm a relic from the past."
"Please don't change. My landlady is about your age, and she's addicted to her cyberfriends."
"What? Doesn't she have real friends at her age?"
"She used to. I'd come home from work to the smells of her beef Wellington, her green curry, or some other culinary delight, knowing that within the half hour she'd be knocking on my door inviting me to meet some bosom buddy over dinner. And I'd return the favor. I dug out my grandma's handwritten cookbook and tried something new. My landlady would bring down one of her cats, and I shared the evening with her while she gave me advice about money or love or something."
"Love? With your looks, you don't seem like a lad who needs advice on love."
My cheeks felt warmer.
"Did your landlady break hearts?"
"She said she did, but I kept getting the impression that none of her lovers stayed around for long. We don't do dinner anymore. We haven't for two years."
"Bloody Social Media Central. She lives on it. It's her whole life. She's part of a group that calls itself the Amazing Twenty. Twenty lost individuals who've never met but stay online for hours just to feel someone cares."
"What about you, Tayler? Who are your friends?"
"I don't know anymore. It's harder and harder to connect. Social Media Central has taken away the few connections I had here and made them believe they're part of that wider world you were talking about. So I sit watching old movies to pass the time. Movies that demand an attention span."
"I hear you, friend. I hear you."
People started chattering at the sight of a woman walking into the park. Her long red hair streamed like a waterfall down her neck, half covering the shapely mounds that heralded her arrival. The people of the park snapped her image as if their devices could capture true beauty.
"Madeline" they called, echoing her name around the park.
"Who is she?" I asked.
"A selfie, Ms. Q?" yelled one of her eager fans.
"Sweetie, I don't share selfies."
Groupies ran up to get a closer shot. One woman in a white shirt fainted in her boyfriend's arms. He dragged her to a nearby bench and laid her down. A guy with rounded glasses, similar to mine, tried to plant a kiss on her cheek. She reached into her tiny handbag and pulled out a fan, swiping the air between him and herself. He pulled back and looked to the ground like a small boy coming to terms with adult behavior.
She then noticed me, so some of her devotees took my photo. Stuart gave me a wink as she strolled toward me.
"You don't know me, do you?"
I shook my head.
"What a weird yet reassuring surprise."
"As you can see, my fan base likes to go nuts."
"It's your outfits, Miss," one cried. "I need to know what to wear before the season ends."
Now that two of her best assets were in my face, I breathed in the scent of her black leather top. Small laces crisscrossed her cleavage. My wayward thoughts were interrupted when she placed her long-nailed finger under my jaw. She pushed upward, raising my head to study my face.
"I'm not that easy, sweetie, even with those that intrigue me. And trust me, you intrigue me. What's your name?"
I mumbled, not making sense.
"His name's Tayler," Stuart said.
"Tayler, eh? I'm Madeline Q, queen of the universe."
"And what a small universe that must be."
"You tired old man, do you even know who I am?"
"The latest vlog sensation? The latest reality web-series loser? It doesn't matter, princess. You'll be forgotten by the end of the year."
She still pushed my jaw upward. "You think I'm special, don't you, Tayler? You may not know what power I have over these hordes, but let me assure you, I have power."
"I can, um, I can see that."
"We need to talk about this beard of yours. It's shabby chic."
"It's short but not elegantly trimmed like the has-been's next to you."
"Let me guess, you're about twenty-three?"
"I see, only ten years younger than me. Well, Tayler, the next time we meet, and we will meet again, I want you to wear a black T-shirt. This lazy checkered top is not doing your stylishly rough metro-beard any justice."
She removed her finger and blew me a kiss. The park folk applauded, taking more snaps of us both. She presented me with a business card from her handbag, her name spelled out on the scarlet background in a classy black font I had never seen before. She turned on her heel and walked away. Others followed like kids drawn to a piper's flute.
"Well, it looks like you've been touched by celebrity of some sort or another," said Stuart. "But kids today celebrate the mundane so I'm sure her appeal has a shelf life."
I nodded, more to shut him up than to agree. I read the small print above the phone number on Madeline's card: Fashion Icon and Blogger. I then placed it carefully in my top pocket.
"What are you grinning about?"
"Stuart, I'm off to buy a black T-shirt."CHAPTER 2
MY LANDLADY, MARY, wore a revealing white dress as she sat in front of her outdated computer. With her best years behind her, the frock could not save her fallen breasts from pressing against her desk for more support.
One of her cats clawed at her bare feet, meowing as if it hadn't been fed for days. Before Mary noticed I was in the room, I went to her kitchen to find food. All I found was milk. A gluggy white custard splattered from the carton with a smell that could strip paint off a wall. I ran the tap and washed the evil mess down the sink.
"Who's there?" Mary yelled.
"Only me." I came out of the kitchen. "Have you fed your cats lately?"
"I think so. Do they look hungry?"
"One of them was scratching at your feet a moment ago. Didn't you feel it?"
She looked around. I pointed to the ginger furball that had wrapped itself around my legs.
"Oh. I'll feed them in a second. I'm just looking through Tammy's wedding photos."
"Have I met Tammy?"
I peered at the screen. A man sporting shoulder pads danced with a woman wrapped in a dress so tight, it was begging for mercy. Both looked like casting rejects from a 1980s prime-time drama about rich oil barons. As Mary flipped through the images, I noted the guests were more engaged with their screens than the couple who brought them to this moment. But at least a few paid the bride some attention by snapping her picture.
"I'm sure I haven't met her," I said. "How do you know her?"
"We chat online all the time."
"Yes, Mary, but how did you meet?"
"Right here, on Social Media Central."
The reddish feline pawed at my jeans. "Don't you think it's time to feed your cats?"
"In a moment." She closed Tammy's social page and looked at the newsfeed of a handsome man thirty years younger. In the reflection from the screen, I could see her smile like a child who'd discovered ice cream, followed with concern as if the treat had melted. "Tayler, how did you get into my apartment?"
"The door opened when I knocked. You know, you really shouldn't leave it unlocked."
"I didn't mean to. Why are you here?"
"It's rent day."
"Is it Wednesday already?"
"I'll leave the money on your dining table."
I left and climbed the stairs, returning shortly with some leftover chicken I was saving for dinner. As I walked in, Mary danced in stilted moves as if she was communicating in Egyptian hieroglyphics to the delighted gent on her computer. She swung her head toward the door, and our eyes met. Hers widened.
"Oh, Tayler, have you met Bernard?"
I waved at the screen. "Hi, Bernard."
"Hi, Tayler" came the voice from the tinny speaker.
"Tayler's my tenant. He's lived above me for years."
"And how do you know Bernard?"
"Social Media Central," they both replied.
I accidentally bit my tongue.
"Bernard is a ... um, what is it you said you were, Bernard?"
"A dentist." He flashed his pearly whites.
"I see," I said. "Are you going somewhere tonight, Mary?"
"No." She looked puzzled.
"It's just that you've dressed up." With her face turned from the screen, she scowled at me. I handed her the plate of chicken. "This is for your cats."
"My cats? Why would I need chicken, Tayler? I have plenty of food for my dear little ones."
"Tayler's right," said Bernard. "You look radiant this evening, Mary."
"Really? Oh, it's just something I threw on. I wanted to look nice for my friends. At my age, I don't get a chance to throw on a frock anymore."
"Then maybe we should do dinner together?"
"Yes, we could mirror meal."
"Mirror meal?" I asked.
"Really, Tayler, you're so out of touch."
"How about steak, mash, and gravy?" Bernard asked.
"Yes, I can make that. I'd light candles but I don't think my camera works that well with mood lighting."
"That's fine. I'll bring the music. I'll make up a special playlist and stream it through as we eat."
"Then it's a date. How does seven p.m. tomorrow sound?"
"I can't tomorrow, my love. I have another appointment."
"Not another woman?"
"No, nothing like that. I'm overdue with my taxes, so I'm linking up with my accountant in the evening."
"We can have a late supper."
"No, let's mirror meal on Friday. That way we both won't be dateless over the weekend."
"Sounds perfect." She placed the plate of chicken next to the computer. "Tayler, why is your mouth open like that?"
"Sorry, I'm in shock. Let me get this straight. Instead of going out for dinner, you're both cooking steak and mashed potato and eating in front of your computer screens. Oh, brother. Let me take an educated guess. You two have never met face to face."
"Tayler, don't be so rude," my landlady said.
"That's okay, Mary. My son, Mike, is just like Tayler. Out of touch with technological trends. No offense, Tayler."
"Mary, my darling, I have to go. Tammy is trying to get my attention."
"I was just looking at her wedding photos. Put her through. We can both talk to her."
"I can't really do that. She's marked her contact request as private. Between you and me, I think she married prematurely. There were already problems in their relationship, but she went ahead with the ceremony anyway."
"I understand, my darling." Mary lost her smile momentarily. "I'm looking forward to Friday."
"So am I, my love."
"Bye, Bernard, until —" Her cyberboyfriend disappeared. "Oh, damn these bad connections. The government needs to get this right."
I placed my hand on her shoulder. She didn't respond. "So was it love at first sight?"
"Not quite." She seemed oblivious to my sarcasm. "But I knew there was a special connection the first time we video chatted."
"Has he met the Amazing Twenty?"
My hand slipped from her as she stepped forward. "Tayler, he came up with the name. Without him, I wouldn't have met the others."
"Has he got legs?"
"I'm just asking. I mean, have you ever video chatted with him doing anything other than sitting down?"
"I think so. Hmm." She rested her finger on her chin. "Oh, Tayler, why can't you just be happy I'm in love?"
"So, Bernard is the reason the Amazing Twenty exists. How did you find him?"
"We told you. Through Social Media Central."
"Yes, but through which application?"
"Oh I see. Through Lover Net. Does he blog about his pursuits?"
"He used to."
"Does he blog about you?"
"Sort of. He calls me the sophisticated lady in his posts."
I tried to keep a straight face.
"Oh, Tayler, don't rain on my parade just because I have someone and you don't. Love will tap you on the shoulder one day. Isn't that what I always say to you?"
I missed the landlady I used to dine with — the woman whose wisdom had turned to mainstream quotes since she discovered Social Media Central. I wanted to say, "Step into the real world," but there was less and less real world to step into.
I eyed the untouched chicken next to the beast that had taken her soul. Some of her cats were gazing at it too, while Mary swayed, blissfully unaware of their hunger.
I grabbed the plate, headed for the kitchen, and pulled out various unmatched bowls. The pets purred desperately as if I was their savior. When I bent down to place their dinner on the floor, the card that fashion blogger had given me slipped from my shirt pocket. Once again I noticed the bold lettering stood out against the richly colored background. I picked it up and held it while the cats licked up their milk like addicts.
"Mary," I called, "do you know Madeline Q?"
"Everyone knows Madeline Q."
"I don't." I joined her in the living room where she was already hard at work moving her mouse.
"Anyone who knows anything about anyone, Tayler, knows who Madeline Q is. She's a fashion blogger. Why do you ask?"
"I met her today."
Her eyes widened. "My dear, you've met royalty."
"From what country?"
"No, no, Tayler. She's a social media celebrity. Don't you know anything? She hangs around with the cream of the cybercrop."
"The cybercrop? Is that what you young kids are calling it these days?"
"My god! The person who gives me rent met Madeline Q, yet he has no idea who she is. What's that in your hand? Is that her card?" I showed it to her, but she started reciting the phone number so I pulled it away. "You have to ring her. Bring her to your apartment. I'll pay for the redecorating."
"I've lived there for years, and you've never offered to fix the place up."
"That's because you were a no one. Now you're a someone."
I chuckled even though her comment made me sad. I glanced at the card. "Wow, Mary. Glad you think I'm worth knowing. Like old times, isn't it?"
Her mouth opened, but no words came out. I left and skipped up the stairs. The moment my door was closed, I leaned against it, pulled out my phone, and dialed Madeline Q's number.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Social Media Central"
Copyright © 2018 Kevin Klehr.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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