Leland Cheuk: “My SMS,” short fiction from The Future



I sent one of my SMSs (Social Media Selves) to my friend’s reading way out in Longway Meadow. I didn’t want to go personally (too far, not in the mood), and I figured enough of my friend’s friends (or their SMSs) would be in attendance that I wouldn’t be missed.

The holographic selves are very reliable. SelfDox makes it really seem like you’re there live, beaming through the SMS Cloud, reacting like an actual person (with facial expressions, verbal tics and intona-tions, habitual gestures, and the like).

The problem was, in this particular case, my SMS was too good. My friend called me up the day after and said I had promised to publish her novel.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t promise that. It was my SMS.”

“Your SMS is you,” she said. “Like, the whole point is that the SMS is supposed to use algorithms to perfectly simulate the decisions you make. You’re going to publish my novel. I already announced it on social media. My agent was there too. She just sent the completed paperwork over.”

I checked my email. Indeed, there it was, the contract. And it was signed. By me! By my SMS!

“I’m afraid this is not the way it’s supposed to work,” I said. “I don’t even know how my SMS was able to sign this document.”

“You checked on vSign capability,” she said.

“I did?”

I told my friend that I hated to disappoint her, but I was sure that this document wouldn’t hold up with my superiors and that, as an editor at a big house, I didn’t have unilateral decision-making power on acquisitions. But I would do my best to represent hers and her agent’s case to my boss.

When I went to work the next day, my boss was surprisingly sympathetic.

“The problem with those SMSs is that they either like everything or spew outrage,” he said, laughing. “Have you read this novel?”

I told him I had not.

“Well, get your SMS to do it,” he said. “Just kidding.”

My roommate Kitty was on the phone in the living room with SelfDox Evangelist Support. Her SMS was standing in the corner when I walked in, but as I approached Kitty, who was reciting her social security number to the rep, her SMS between myself and Kitty and began telling me about her lifelong battle with chronic depression and how some days caused her great physical pain to even get out of bed and that people didn’t understand her suffering and that awareness needed to be raised among regular people about the experience of chronic depression …

“Can you turn this off?” I asked Kitty.

“I’ve tried!” she said. “I’ve been tinkering with the settings all day.”

I hid in my room and logged into SelfDox to disable my SMSs for now. There were three I had forgot-ten I’d sent out. There was one that went to my college roommate’s wedding in M—. Another at-tended the birth of my brother’s daughter in Paris. Then there was the one I sent to visit my mother in her nursing home. Within minutes of my turning off my other selves, my phone began ringing.

“I was just talking to him,” my college roommate said.

“Yeah, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it in person.”

“Well, we hadn’t spoken in a long time,” he said icily.

“I hope my SMS represented me well.”

“He was incredible,” said my college roommate. “I had him give a speech he was so awesome. So wit-ty. You don’t show up on my social media feeds, so I was surprised to hear your SMS making all these quips.”

“Yeah, my feed is mostly jokes and political outrage.”

“Well, luckily, we just got the jokes,” he said. “The people were in tears they were laughing so hard. You should check it out on your SelfDox Live. I’m sure it’s up on there. Just rewind.”

“Will do,” I said. “We should hang out soon.”

“I feel like we just did!” he said. “I’m good for a while. Besides, I’m off to my honeymoon tomorrow. We’ll talk soon, I’m sure. Maybe in the fall.”

“Sure!” I tried not to sound hurt.

He started laughing again, for some time. I asked him what was so funny.

“Oh nothing, just something your SMS said last night. You had to be there.”

My brother wanted me to turn my SMS back on posthaste. “Clara is freaking out!” he hissed. “She was just crying to him, or you, about how she was worried about losing her career and you, or he, were making her feel better by encouraging her to stay centered and accepting that she can’t have every-thing at once and that she was going to appreciate the time she could spend with her baby at this very young age. You know, all the shit I’ve been telling her except she doesn’t listen to me! But when your fucking social media angel shows up, she’s lapping it up like her own breast milk.”

I told him I’d been having some issues with the SMSs settings and wanted to fix them before sending them back out into the wild.

“Please hurry, brother, okay?” he said. “The baby is crying. She’s crying. I fear for my life. Literally.”

I said I’d do the best I can.

As for my mother, she called and asked when my SMS would be visiting next. I told her I’d be out there next month.

“No, I mean your SMS,” she said. “He’s so positive. He never snaps at me for some tiny thing I did dec-ades ago.”

I went into SelfDox, dialed down all the decision-making and conversational settings, applied the changes, and left my SMSs out there. If my friends and family were digging my social media presence, so be it, as long as he didn’t make any decisions that adversely affected my life going forward. I went out into the living room and Kitty’s SMS rushed up to me and said, “I’ve realized over the past year that I’ve gone through so much heartbreak with my boyfriend leaving me and me not getting a promo-tion at my job and I’ve learned so much about how important it is to have loving friends near you, in-spiring you to be better, and being a shoulder to cry on, you know?”

I glanced at the real Kitty, who was giving me a thumbs-up as she hung up with the Evangelist Rep.

“All fixed,” she said.

At work, I read my friend’s novel and it was very well written, but far too dark. I knew from my decade of experience as an editor that if there is darkness in a mainstream book, it must serve only to illumi-nate that kindness and the good parts of humanity win out in the end, otherwise it won’t sell, and I’ll be out of a job. I called up my friend to tell her the bad news.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been vetoed.”

“By your boss?”

“By me.”

“What do you mean? You just said it was good the other night!”

“That wasn’t me,” I said. “That was my SMS.”

“I guess your SMS is my friend, and not you.” She hung up.

Then I went into a meeting with a colleague who wasn’t in the office that day. She’d sent her SMS.

“This is the best Young Adult Suicide Novel I’ve ever read,” the SMS said, talking about one of my col-league’s titles.

“I think it’s going to dominate the category. It’s going to be our super-lead book next spring for sure.”

“That’s terrific,” I said, checking that book off my list of discussion topics. “Let’s talk about Mother’s Milque next.”

“That is the best Middle Grade Mother Suicide Novel I’ve ever read,” the SMS said. “I think it’s going to dominate the category. It’s going to be our super-lead book next spring for sure.”

“Is there any book that isn’t a super-lead book on our discussion list today?”

“Of course not!” the SMS said cheerfully.

On my way home on the subway, I received a text from my brother that showed my newborn niece giggling and making baby love eyes at my SMS as she lay on the chest of my sister-in-law, who was also beaming at my holographic self.

“You/He Are Magic!” texted my brother.

Things with my SMSs settled down for a while my settings adjustments, and I had lunch with an artist friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

We caught up on her ten-year-old son, who was doing well in school and had overcome learning issues related to ADHD with the help of the latest medications. At the end of the meal, we hugged and be-fore she headed into the subway, she said, “It’s so nice to see you IRL.”

“I feel the same way.”

“Your SMS is super-boring compared to you,” she said.

“I dialed the settings down a bit after some … complaints.”

“I started sending my SMS to meet with your SMS,” she said sheepishly. “I feel guilty about that.”

I was suddenly consumed with the feeling that she and I weren’t really friends after all, if we were willing to put all this virtuality between us. But I dismissed my reservations as just an antiquated way of thinking.

“How did our SMSs get along?” I asked.

“From what I saw afterward on SelfDox Live? They were almost ready to fuck.” We had a good laugh.

But then, of course, later I wondered, was there something romantic going on between us?

When my college roommate visited The City with his wife after they returned from their honeymoon in Brazil, we met up for a beer. At first, he talked animatedly about how he felt about being married and how he believed marriage brought out the best version of himself, but he admitted that the feel-ing was wearing off, and he was just going back to being the flawed man he’d always been.

“How so?”

He paused. “Your SMS would never ask me that.”


“He would just let me talk.”

“I’m sorry, please go on, I won’t interrupt.”

“Don’t judge me, okay?” he snapped. “I cheated on her. Is that what you want me to say? I fucked a waitress in the bathroom yesterday while the wife was at Pilates.”

“I didn’t mean to …”

“Fuck it, I’ve got to go,” he said. He downed his drink and left a few big bills on the bar. “Let me know when you or your SMS is in town next, okay?”

That night, in my room, I opened my SelfDox app, feeling depressed about the nature of my close rela-tionships and seriously considered turning off my SMSs for good. It seemed people preferred what wasn’t real. They preferred the optionality of being able to reveal and consume the revelations of others without consequence or meaning. And maybe that was what I wanted too, since I started using SMSs in the first place to go places I didn’t want to go, be with people I didn’t really want to be with. My conscience was telling me to stay in the moment, be present with people you care about, be real. But the world was replying that I shouldn’t do any of those things. And did I really serve my con-science, sitting in my apartment night after night, streaming television while reading my feeds, posting my tiny jokes and my common outrages?

I decided to dial up my SMS settings and then I posted that I was super-depressed that no one truly loved me and how most days, I didn’t even want to get out of bed and people didn’t understand what I wanted or how hard it was to be me and awareness needed to be raised among regular people about the experience of chronic depression …

My post made my SMSs broadcast a more depressive side of myself and soon, I noticed that my SMSs spent less and less time with the people I knew, because my friends would just say hi and leave, and not want to spend time with my dour hologram. Over the next several months, my SMSs hardly got any likes or comments at all. I also found that fewer and fewer folks were even bothering to react to my social media posts.

One day, I came back to my apartment and only Kitty’s SMS was there. Kitty texted and said she was staying over at her boyfriend’s for a while. Then I started going weeks on end without meeting a real person at work. Everyone was sending their SMSs.

I met with my boss IRL at the office and asked him how we were supposed to work like this.

“I just bought a house upstate,” he said. “I’ll be sending my SMS to the office starting tomorrow. You should too.”

“I don’t think I can afford a house upstate.”

“That’s too bad,” he said. “It’s the American Dream. To have a little property all to yourself and then be all by yourself.”

I thought about that and then realized that I needed to let go of my antiquated way of thinking and keep up with the times. I stopped going into the office, or leaving my bedroom for that matter, and I sent an SMS to work and put an SMS in the living room of my place to interact with Kitty’s SMS, and I’d just stream television and consume my feed and post about how I felt that day whether it was good or okay or horrible and I tried to appreciate how my SMSs provided me the great convenience of being my truest, most modern self.

A MacDowell Colony and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is the author of the story collection Letters from Dinosaurs (2016) and the novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (2015), which was also published in translation in China (2018). His newest novel No Good Very Bad Asian is forthcoming from C&R Press in 2019. He is the fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at lelandcheuk.com. 

Image: imgflip.com

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