'Now That's What I Call Brand Engagement', by Kevin Fanning

Photograph by Justin Jackson. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

You emerged from the FedEx Office at the end of your eight-hour shift with only one 30-minute break. The sliding doors affirmed the existence of your corporeal form, and you walked out onto the sidewalk to bathe yourself in the last strains of the golden hour.

Every day is exactly the same inside the FedEx Office. There’s always some guy who comes in and needs a package sent somewhere and he’s always upset about how much it costs and how much paperwork he needs to fill out. And then there’s some guy who has a million questions about how to sign up for a computer. And some student comes in who needs to print something but they didn’t bring the file so what should they do? And then some woman gets in line behind them and she’s holding a piece of paper that needs to be faxed, somewhere, for some reason. And the FedEx Office is the last place on Earth where any member of the human race can access a fax machine.

When the FedEx Corporation purchased the Kinko’s Corporation and rebranded as FedEx Office, it felt like a hostile takeover, like FedEx had carelessly harvested Kinko’s of all its best parts – the underlying punk rock DIY aesthetic of making copies, the breathtaking array of poster boards and paper colours. This is nature. The unchecked forest that consumes the parking lot, the strip mall. All that had once been Kinko’s would die in the leaf meal, starved of nutrients and sunshine beneath the canopy layer of the FedEx corporate structure.

But it had occurred to you more than once in your tenure at the FedEx Office, that maybe some day in the future, when any object could be printed in 3D with the click of a button, and packages would be routed by algorithms to be dropped from the sky by automated drones, and humans would no longer need to be involved at any point in the physical transaction of transporting things from one point in space-time to another, that perhaps even then, there would still be a line of people holding papers that needed to be faxed for some reason. Maybe Kinko’s was still somewhere deep inside the FedEx Office, in stasis, larval, waiting for the season to change, when it would finally emerge and eat its host body.

You walked away from the FedEx Office, down and across the street and then cut through the parking lot of the 7-Eleven so you could get to your apartment, where you would spend the evening scrolling blankly down your wall until it was time for either sleep or your next shift.

But as you crossed the parking lot you saw someone leaning up against the wall. A girl? No. A boy. But wearing an outfit you don’t often see on boys. Short shorts. Those tall gladiator sandals with the complicated straps. He had long ombre’d hair and Coca-Cola red lipstick and a delicate layer of stubble. A really perfect boy. You couldn’t stop staring.

He didn’t notice you – he was holding a giant neon slushie up to his face and taking a picture of himself kissing it. Making out with it. Licking it and tonguing the sides of the cup, his eyes rolled back in the throes of passion, while his other hand held out a phone. You watched as he took the selfie in one shot, like it wasn’t even complicated, like the angle and the light and the framing of the face weren’t witchcraft at all, but merely incontrovertible laws of physics.

He flipped and one-thumbed the buttons on his phone while pulling on the straw with his teeth. He suddenly looked up, caught you staring, and smiled. A smile like a bright new billboard, popping up to save you from the unending boredom of the horizon.

“I’m very excited about my Flavorberry slushie,” he said.

“Yes,” you said. “I can definitely tell.”

“Very. Excited.” He held your stare.

Today you stopped to add a comment.

And maybe normally you would just mentally Like the moment and scroll past it but today you stopped to add a comment.

“I heard you’re not supposed to drink those because the machines are basically a haven for bacteria and the employees never clean them out.”

The boy’s face changed from bliss to disbelief, and then to horror, and then he then slumped back against the brick wall, dead.

“It was all worth it,” he said, returning to life. “I had to go to three different 7-Elevens before I found one with the kind of slushie I wanted. Wouldn’t you think that 7-Eleven sold exactly the same types of slushies at all times at all locations?”

You hesitated, unsure exactly what question you were being asked.

“You would,” he answered for you. “You would naturally assume uniformity. But that’s the beauty of brands like 7-Eleven. They portray themselves as clean and consistent but beneath their veneer of corporate sameness they seethe in pure chaos. And it’s not just about the slushies.” He shook his head and went back to doing stuff on his phone. “Not even remotely.”

You felt the insistent tendrils of the FedEx Office reaching out behind you, imploring you to include it in the conversation.

“I think I know what you mean,” you said. “There are two FedEx Office locations here in town. And you would think they’re the same, but the one where I work is the Good one. And you don’t even want to know what goes on in the Bad one.”

The boy nodded and bit his lip. “You’re right. Come on. Your hands are empty.” And he grabbed you and pulled you into the 7-Eleven and demanded that you buy a slushie of your own. With your own money. And also that you buy him some Doritos, the Locos Tacos Cool Ranch & Crunchy Taco flavoured kind. What? He was hungry.

In line at the checkout you navigated the twitch mechanics of the level, sliding your card and then waiting for the cashier to say “Wait, try it again. Wait. No. Okay, now.”

“So what’s your name,” the boy said, holding his phone up. As though your name might slide out if he tilted it just right. You had no idea what to say. It had never even come up.

“This is me,” the boy said. You were sitting on your couch, and his hips were touching your hips, and his wrist grazed yours as he leaned in to share the screen of his phone with you.

He scrolled through his Instagram, showing you picture after picture of himself. “I’m star_travlr420. This is me.”

His Instagram was filled with selfies.

His Instagram was filled with selfies, hundreds of them, more than a human could ever heart. He wore elaborate eye makeup and fake eyelashes, and his long hair, sometimes obsidian black, sometimes mermaid blue, fell halfway down his chest in lazy waves. Many of the pictures were taken in front of the same dirty mirror, but some were taken in stores and restaurants, posed with a dizzying array of textiles and consumer goods.

“I mean I’m more than this,” he said. “I’m not just this. I’m also on Keek and Vine and Snapchat obviously, and WhoApp and Fortunator and Yaho.” You hadn’t heard of any of these places, but you nodded, wondering if maybe he was just feeding you morphemes to see which ones you’d swallow.

“Now you need a name! I still don’t even know what to call you! I can’t believe you don’t have a name. Give me your phone,” he said, suddenly holding your phone.

He was scrolling and tapping with an oddly intimate familiarity with your phone. Like he already knew it. Like he already knew you. “You have the weirdest things on here,” he said. “Chrome? Gmail? What even. Aww, Facebook, my uncle has that. Where’s Insta? Or are you using VSCO?”

“No, I don’t… I don’t have those,” you said.

What am I supposed to scream while you’re fucking me?

“You are literally naked right now,” star_travlr420 said. “But you need a name. What am I supposed to scream while you’re fucking me? ‘SHAPE’? ‘ENTITY’?”

You watched his fingers sliding across your phone and couldn’t remember the last time you were this turned on. You just sat very still and quiet lest you somehow ruin everything about this perfect moment.

“Okay. There. Welcome to the world, Personx0701xx_a,” he said, handing your phone back to you.

You loved the way your name sounded on his tongue. It felt right.

“Cool,” you said. “Thanks for naming me.”

“Your name was there all along, I just facilitated the connection. Okay! Here’s your test. Go to Instagram, find me, and add me so it’s official. Go.”

You stumbled gracelessly around the screen until you found star_travlr420’s profile. You noticed that he had 113,000 followers.

“Um, you have 113,000 followers,” you said.

“I know, right?” he said, without looking up from whatever he was doing.

“You’re famous?”

“I don’t know? I guess? I just really exist, is how I think of it.”

“Are these all real accounts or Brazilian robo-corporations or something?” you asked.

star_travlr420 thought for a moment. “Every account, every profile, every brand, is true to itself, is real on some level.”

You desperately hoped this was true, with your zero posts and one follower.

Later, after the hashtag of your relationship had stopped trending, you had 9,000 followers on Instagram. Mainly from appearing in pictures on star_travlr420’s timeline. Who, having interrupted his stream of selfies to post pictures of or with you, was now down to 108,000 followers.

star_travlr420 had insisted that this was normal, that it’s always messy when two brands unite. But you couldn’t help but wonder: how tenable was your interaction? Was your love just cannibalising his brand? Or did you have to simply trust that at some point the chemistry of your relationship would hold both of your brands in suspension?

The next day, after your eight-hour shift with only one 30-minute break at FedEx Office, you decided to take yourself to the movies. You went to see the new Disney-Pixar film. You enjoyed the movie very much. It was, in your opinion, of the same high quality and calibre as all Disney-Pixar movies.

There was a young protagonist who met an interesting stranger, and then experienced some adversity. This adversity led to some difficult choices. The difficult choices led to emotionally charged realisations. And those realisations resulted in a very satisfying conclusion.

Out in the lobby, you paused briefly in front of the life-size cardboard cut-out of the main character from the movie, admiring it, relating to it, understanding its arc as your own.

You walked home, catching up on your timeline, scrolling past some things and Liking many others, your head filled with the magic of Disney-Pixar, the emotional rollercoaster of follower counts, the coy back and forth of young brand alliances, and the things that need to be sacrificed in order for a relationship to work. And suddenly everything clicked into place and you saw the strategy of your life laid out before you, and you turned and ran laughing back to the movie theatre, having realised what an impactful branding opportunity you had squandered by not posing for a selfie with that cardboard cut-out.

‘Now That’s What I Call Brand Engagement’ first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 10, Issue 2.

Kevin Fanning writes about celebrities, internet culture, technology, brands and relationships. He is a contributing writer for The Morning News and the Beverage Expert In Residence at Maura Magazine. His story collections include Magical Neon Sexuality and Jennifer Love Hewitt Time Infinity.