The following is an excerpt from The Unbinding by Walter Kirn, published by Anchor Books.
They call at all hours with a thousand problems, and our satellites fix their locations to the square foot while our operators try to help them or put them in touch with specialists who can. They call because they've fallen and can't stand up, because they're alone and choking on their food, because they've been abandoned by their mates, because they smell gas, because their babies won't nurse, because they've forgotten how many pills they've swallowed, and sometimes because they're afraid that we're not here and crave reassurance in case they need us later. It's a costly service—sixty dollars a month for the Palladium Global Access package, not including the optional Active Angel Plan, which remotely coaches users through more than six hundred common Life Challenges, from administering infant CPR to negotiating the purchase of a home—and clients deserve to know we're at our stations even when the skies are fair and blue.
"AidSat?" they ask us, and as we answer them we check our screens for their pulse rates and other vital signs, which are forwarded to us from sensors in their bracelets or, for Active Angel clients, in their ear jacks. If the numbers look bad we press a lighted red key that sends an ambulance from the nearest hospital. If the stats appear normal we stroke another key that records and stores the information, shielding the firm from legal liability should it turn out that the sensors have malfunctioned and the caller is, in fact, dying on the line.
Last Thursday around lunchtime this call came. Peculiar, but not as peculiar as they come. The only reason to write it down is that I decided this month to write it all down, everything, my mornings and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I'm an interesting person, I've come to see. We all are. We don't deserve to disappear.
"I'm in my car. It's rainy—really foggy. I think I see a coastline on my right."
"How can I help you?" I asked.
"I'm lost, I guess."
“Humboldt County, ma'am, city of Eureka, heading south on Wabash Avenue. On your right you should see a Pentecostal church.”
"Which state is this, though?"
"That makes sense."
"Do you need any further assistance?"
"You're sure? All conversations with AidSat are strictly private. You sound a bit frazzled, frankly."
"Time of month."
I let out a laugh I'd practiced and said, "No kidding," though what I meant by this I have no idea. Just trying to sound human, I suppose, which I'll admit can be hard for me sometimes. It's a skill like any other skill, and not the natural condition they make it out to be in the children's books.
The woman terminated our connection. But I tracked her vehicle for the next ten minutes. It's in the contract folks sign when they subscribe. If an operator has cause to be concerned, he's authorized to continue passive coverage without the client's spoken permission. I've made a habit of this practice. Three years ago, when I was new at AidSat, I took a call from the distraught head chef of a Kansas City country club who'd learned just moments earlier that he'd been fired. Since the man subscribed to Active Angel, I led him step-by-step through a scripted two-hour crisis-mitigation plan. I stood by in his ear as he ate a light, warm meal, obtained a pen and paper at a drugstore, and sought out a peaceful spot of natural beauty (a nearby city park I guided him to), where, in response to my whispered promptings, he sketched a series of detailed pictures depicting his hopes and desires for his future. He seemed composed after finishing the drawings, and, at his request, I let him go. I should have shadowed him. The man returned to his workplace with a handgun, randomly let off five shots in the main dining room (wounding no one but traumatizing many), then discharged the weapon into his own right ear.
Though AidSat provided me with intensive therapy beginning the next morning and lasting six months, the guilt still scratches, the regrets still bite, and sometimes my dreams light up with violet bursts from the bullets I might have prevented from being fired and never got to hear.
I followed the woman's vehicle on my screen as it entered the town of Eureka and then stopped moving. That's when her breathing suddenly accelerated and her body temperature shot up.
—From The Unbinding by Walter Kirn. Copyright © 2007 by Walter Kirn. Permission granted by Anchor Books.