It’s Thursday Night, and Darrell is all set to tell the angels he won’t go to their meetings anymore.
At first he thought about just walking away–that is, going home after work on Thursdays, instead of taking two buses out to Jim’s suburban estate. On the other four weeknights he can walk in twenty minutes to his third floor flat, whose one distinguishing feature is that it overlooks the Seekonk River. Darrell suspects the rent would be a hundred bucks cheaper without this. The toilet gurgles all night long, and the neighbors downstairs aren’t always as quiet as he likes, but no matter–it’s home, and he need not share it with any other guy.
Just forget the meetings. They’ll get the idea soon enough.
Angels, though–he’s not sure what they would do. The last time someone left, Jim and his assistant leader, Tom (who’s still not an angel) went to the poor devil’s house and knocked on his door and asked nicely what was going on. Darrell doesn’t know how the conversation went, but the poor devil did not return.
That was before the whole portrait business started, though…
He likes more and more the idea of free Thursday nights. He could fix a proper dinner, like frying chicken in the Fry Daddy instead of stopping at the corner burrito shop and munching with one eye on his watch. He wouldn’t have to balance on a metal folding chair with a boxy guitar on his lap, strumming praise songs he’s privately never really liked, singing those songs besides, and leading everyone else in the singing on top of that. When his own attempts at transformation didn’t work out, he’d thought at least maybe he’d get out of leading the songs. An angel’s singing voice turns even a nursery rhyme into the music of the spheres, and fingers dragged across metallic strings interfere with this more than accompany it.
Still they urged him to play on.
On my eighteenth birthday I received a letter from the government. It came in a plain white envelope with a black stamp in the corner. Along the bottom, in faded red ink, was the urgent message, “TIME SENSITIVE INFORMATION: OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” I signed for the letter. Receiving it was mandatory.
I wished there was somebody else in the house with me, but my siblings had already moved out and my parents were shopping for furniture to remodel my room when I left for college. The silence in the house was absolute.
I took out my phone: “It’s here,” I texted Ally.
Ally: “OMG! On my way! Did you open it?”
Me: “Not yet. Door’s unlocked.”
I walked upstairs to my bedroom slowly looking at the envelope. It felt heavy in my hands, but that was probably only in my head. I placed the letter on my desk and sat in front of it. My dim, dark reflection caught in my computer monitor watched me as I tried to ignore the envelope sitting in front of me. I wanted Ally with me, but I could only resist the temptation for a few minutes before I opened it.
I put my finger under the triangular flap and slid it across the envelope. The sound of ripping paper filled my room. Inside was a single piece of paper expertly folded into thirds. The corners aligned perfectly. I wondered if there was one person at the Bureau that spent all day folding these letters into perfect thirds. It was, after all, a very important piece of paper that deserved that level of attention to detail, because printed on this piece of paper was the exact date of my death–my expiration date.
As part of the Third Law of Humanitarianism every eighteen year old received this letter from the government. The date printed on the paper was one hundred percent accurate.
My heart pounded in my chest. “Relax,” I said to myself, “there isn’t anything to worry about.” I was in decent physical condition. There wasn’t any trace of cancer, high blood pressure, or diabetes in my family history. My grandfather had died from a heart attack, but he was eighty-three. That couldn’t be blamed on faulty equipment. Of my immediate family my father had the shortest expected lifespan at seventy-two years, while my sister had the longest at one hundred and three. Everything would be fine.
I unfolded the letter:
Dear Matthias Williams,
In accordance with the Third Act of Humanitarianism we are sending this letter to inform you of your expiration date:
May 24, 2034
The Expiration Date Bureau
I glanced up at the calendar: May 22, 2034.
I’m not the hoarder, Granny Keeper is. I’m just the finder.
I found her the day I lost everything. My boyfriend, my wallet, my job. I had no idea where the boyfriend or the wallet went, I just knew they weren’t there when I woke up. Will’s stuff was all gone, from his Xbox to his nose hair trimmer, so at least I knew he wasn’t kidnapped.
Maybe my wallet was, though.
On the other hand, Trisha the manager was crystal clear on why I lost my job. You’re supposed to write the customer’s first name on the ticket, not bitter identifiers. Codependent Hipsters. Sugar Daddy and the Sidepiece. Short-Term Engagement.
At an aggressively cheerful chain restaurant like mine, such shenanigans are the kiss of death. Termination effective immediately. Absolutely bone-chilling terminology, I would have preferred to be released.
She was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark when I got home. I flipped on the lights and there she was, complacently knitting a bright red scarf. She later gifted it to me as a memento of our first meeting, and I love it now, but at the time it was garish and eerie. I mean, who knits in the dark in other people’s kitchens? Usually psychos, I’m guessing.
I didn’t say anything at first, I just watched her. She was round and soft and friendly looking, like Queen Elizabeth’s approachable twin, and she hummed That’s Amore to the click of the needles. I thought maybe she had wandered off from her family, and I tried to recall the faces of the missing people I had seen posted at Wal-Mart. She didn’t look familiar.
At first, the humming and knitting was kind of nice. Soothing. But then it started making me nervous again. Needles and all. “Hi,” I said, and waved, which was kind of awkward since I was only two feet away.
“Hello.” She laid her knitting down in her lap and folded her hands. “How was work today, dear?”
“Well, I got fired.”
She clucked her tongue at me, a disapproving mother hen. “Well, now, that’s too bad.” She patted the chair next to her, and I slid into it.
She invited me to sit in my own chair.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
“Not really.” I shrugged. “But we should probably talk about what you’re doing here.”
That was important to get out in the open.
“Why, I’m from Craig’s List.” Wispy grey eyebrows, aged rainbows of surprise, soared into the delicate lines of her forehead.
“Your new roommate?”
“My new roommate?” Echolalia, the long banished, obnoxious childhood habit was bubbling up. Ms. Jess, my poor speech teacher had worked so hard to break me of it. In her honor, I bit my tongue (literally, front teeth vivisecting quite a few taste buds) and forced myself to listen, without interjecting, while my elderly trespasser explained herself.
“Your ad.” She spoke the words deliberately and slowly, as if to a very small child or crazy person, which wasn’t really fair, considering the circumstances. “I’m taking the extra room. We’ll split rent and utilities right down the middle, but from the looks of you I imagine I’ll be taking over groceries. You’re skin and bones.” She dug around in an enormous patchwork bag, and pulled out a package of Fig Newtons from beneath a tangled web of multicolored yarn. “Please, have some,” she said, brandishing them at me.
Dismissing an irrational fear of being fattened up for Baba Yaga’s oven, I took one and chewed on it thoughtfully. I guess it was nice of Will to put an ad on Craig’s List for a new roomie. It would have been nicer if he had just told me he was leaving. Or nicer still if he’d just stuck around.
On second thought, a Craig’s List ad is a pretty crappy farewell gesture.
“So, how come you were sitting here in the dark?” I asked.
“Don’t talk with your mouthful, dear. No one needs to see that,” she admonished primly before answering my question. “It would have been rude to barge in here and turn on all the lights as if I owned the place.”
“Right,” I said, making sure I swallowed every last crumb first. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Granny Keeper.” She resumed knitting and humming.
“I know, dear.” She patted my hand. “It was in the ad.”
Granny Keeper was flipping pancakes when I came downstairs the next morning. Like, literally flipping them. A procession of them soared from the spatula, stopped just inches from ceiling and spun, hurtling back to their blistering doom.
I hadn’t eaten breakfast in five years, but that was all about to change.
“I need something blue,” she said, handing me a plate.
“Something blue?” I repeated. Gah. I bit my tongue, gathered a thought, and tried again. “What do you need?”
“I’m not sure yet. It’s just so empty in here. We need something blue. After you eat, you can run out and get me some things. And then I’ll see which one I want.” She unclasped a dainty beaded coin purse and pulled out a crispy new fifty dollar bill. “Get as many as you can.”
I don’t know what was in those pancakes, but I said yes.
So few robot myths remain in our legends. Perhaps it’s because humans can’t accept the faults of their electronic children. Maybe it’s because robots don’t tell fairy stories. Anymore. I think neither wants to admit how similar we truly are.
Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 113
The Green Queen slammed her wand against her titanium-laced throne, “Commence with the defacement.”
Abe knew what he had to do next. He’d done it many times before. “I am sorry, Iron Jefferson.” His whispering voice hummed through his speaker grill. “I will be quick.”
“I do not wish to lose my face, Iron Abe. Can you help me?” said Iron Jefferson.
Abe looked around at all the beautiful prom queens of the Queen’s court surrounding them, their lithe, feminine robotic bodies contrasting sharply with his and Jefferson’s industrial functionality. He moved past the chains holding Jefferson in place. “I will do the only thing I can.” He loosened the clasps around Jefferson’s Faceframe. “I will save your face.” With the removal of the Faceframe, Jefferson’s robot body fell, suspended only by his chains. His smokestack ceased its sooty production.
“Iron Worker Abe,” said the Queen, rising. Her emerald dress swished as she stood. “You have the traitor’s Faceframe?”
Abe looked into Jefferson’s green eyes. The Faceframe felt so light. “Yes, your majesty.”
“Then connect it to the Make-over Array. I tire of looking at both of you.”
The array gleamed with surgical sterility. It sat like a headless chrome and plastic monster in its den. After locking Jefferson’s Faceframe into place across from his former body, Abe started the machine.
“My lovely subjects,” the Queen addressed her court.
Abe removed the defensive programming from Jefferson’s Faceframe.
“See the traitor before you.”
Abe knew Jefferson was now compelled to operate the Make-over Array against himself.
“For him, justice was swift and appropriate.”
Abe watched the construction arms descend and cut into Jefferson’s body.
“His Faceframe now runs the very machine that will bring beauty and order to his once treacherous form.”
The arms hacked and buzzed at the old, iron carcass. As Abe watched, the smokestacks and grills and dials disappeared.
“No longer will he be a threat to us.”
The shape changed. The contours smoothed. Wire veins and composite tendons knitted around the altered, iron frame.
“She is now one of us.”
The flesh crept from the Array around molded sinew, like living silk and synthetic fibers. A new prom queen stood naked before the others. Abe turned off the Make-over Array and watched the green eyes of Jefferson’s Faceframe turn black.
“Simply perfect,” the Queen declared. “See how I make beauty from ugliness. When humans were still aboard this ship, could they create something so wonderful?” She whipped her wand against the throne. “Delilah, take our new sister for reeducation.”
Abe watched one of the lady robots–like the others, but with spun, copper-colored hair around her bare, golden shoulders–step forward to take away the new one. Delilah looked at him.
The Queen sat down in her throne, borne away by attendants. After all had left the chamber, Abe removed Jefferson’s face from the Make-over Array.
He made his way back to his cabin, ignored by all who passed him. Once through his door, he found one of the few clear spots left on his walls and mounted Jefferson’s dead Faceframe with all the others he’d saved.
The Song rang out clearly from the battlefield. Aliara heard it in the lilting moans of the wounded as the ground spread crimson beneath them. She heard it in the joyful chorus of the victors as they stood triumphant over their foes. Before she’d become a Knight-Initiate, people had often told her they could hear the Song in the simpler aspects of life. Farmers in the scratching of their plows as they tore through the soil to prepare it for seed. Mothers in the bubbling laughter of their children as they lay in their cradles. Yet, for her it was the battlefield that cast its voice to the sky in a hymn that was both mournful and exalted at once.
“The plan worked perfectly,” Aliara breathed as she looked around for her horse. One of the Illdrin, the heathens from the south, had struck a lucky blow and unhorsed her. His part in the Song ended soon after.
“You are surprised, Aliara?” Havvermath rumbled.
Aliara looked up at her friend and mentor, and smiled at his gentle rebuke. “I guess not. I’ve heard people speak of the general in awe since I first began training to be a Knight. Some even claim that He of Many works through him in battle, giving the general insight into the minds of the enemy.”
Havvermath nodded. “I too have heard this.”
“Do you believe it?”
Havvermath rode silently a while considering the question. Aliara didn’t mind, she knew her Sword-Father to be a thoughtful man. She waited for his answer and let the sounds of the battlefield wash over, and comfort her. Spellchanters could be heard, using the power of Voice to heal the wounded and praise He of Many for granting them a fragment of His power. She smiled to hear this, feeling closer to the Most High and knowing that the agonized moans of the wounded and dying were but parts of the Song.
“Well?” Aliara prompted.
“I think it is for the Spellchanters to ponder the will of He of Many, and for us to deal death to those who would be His enemy,” Havvermath said.
Aliara frowned at Havvermath, but before she could reply she noticed their Sergeant yelling at two Knights. His face was flushed and his eyes flickered dangerously between rage and murder. Sergeant Falmere saw them and waved them over, glowering at the other two Knights as they hastily departed.
“Where have you been, Havvermath? Everything’s falling apart, and you’re off flirting with this doe eyed child?” Falmere growled.
“Sir, Aliara is a Knight-Initiate, and I am her Sword-Father, set to look after her until her own blade sings true.” Havvermath placed his hand on Aliara’s shoulder. “This was her first battle, but already she holds her sword steady and delivers death like a seasoned Knight. I have no doubt that she will soon have no need of me, and easily surpass my modest skill with a blade.”
Falmere snorted. “Always the humble Knight, eh Havvermath?”
“I only speak the truth. What is it you require of us, Sergeant?” Havvermath asked.
Falmere narrowed his eyes and looked around, making sure no one else was in ear shot. “The general was abducted and his honor guard slain while we battled the Illdrin.”
Aliara muttered a prayer to He of Many. “But, how?”
“We don’t know. No one saw the godless bastards come or go! Luckily, one of our Spellchanters managed to pick up their trail. He said he could sense the vestiges of the general’s incorporeal form or some such crap. Who knows what they’re talkin’ about half the time. All that matters is that we can track the general, and get him home safe,” Falmere said.
“I’ll alert the other Knights,” Havvermath replied.
“No!” Falmere barked. “No one can know! Only us three, the Lieutenant, and the Spellchanters are aware of this. If the rest of the Knights find out there’ll be panic, and half the damned army will charge off on their own tryin’ to find him.”
Havvermath sighed. “What aren’t you telling us?”
Falmere spit and scratched his chin. “There’s more god-cursed Illdrin camped to the south. An even bigger group than the one we just fought, and they’re lookin’ for trouble.”
“Then I will stay here with a squad of Knights and sing my last verse in the Song, while the rest of you go and save the general,” Havvermath declared. “It will be my honor to die so that the general may live.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Aliara said, gripping the hilt of her sword.
“Shut up, both of you!” Falmere shouted and pointed at a lone Spellchanter who approached. “You two, and this fool are gonna rescue the general. A small party will attract no attention, and you’re our best warrior, Havvermath. You’re easily worth ten other Knights.”
“I think you overestimate–.”
“Shut up, I said! This is Colvin, the Spellchanter who found the general’s trail,” Falmere explained.
“These are my escorts? Why so few?” Colvin asked with a frown.
“I must agree, this is foolishness!” Havvermath protested. “Let us at least take a full squad of Knights.”
Aliara waited for the Sergeant to explode and start screaming at Havvermath, but the rage never came. Instead he sighed and his shoulders slumped. He looked like a man drowning with no land in sight.
“I tried, Havvermath. I tried to have the whole bloody army ride off after the general the moment I heard about this, but the Lieutenant won’t hear of it. When I pressed the point, I thought the dead eyed son of a whore was gonna have my head for insubordination. You ever try arguing with him?”
“This is pointless,” Aliara said. “If it’s going to be only us three, then let’s stop wasting time and go. Each moment we wait could be the one that costs the general his life.”
“Doe eyes is right. Go! Get the general and bring him back to us!” Falmere shouted.
Havvermath nodded. “My blade shall free the general or slay all those who had a hand in his downfall. I swear it, Sergeant.”
“Let’s hope it’s the first one,” Falmere muttered.
Aliara couldn’t help but agree.
In the middle of the open plaza, a bullet spanged away, leaving a puff of thin, red dust trailing skyward. The old woman leaning over the well shrieked, threw her hands up to cover her head, and raced for the alleyway. Too late–the next bullet barked, and she went down.
Sanachi, hiding in the shadowed nook below the crumbling church steps, shook his head. Stupid. She should have hunkered down and waited. The guard would’ve gotten bored and left. Instead, she’d made great target practice.
He squinted against the harsh, late morning light. Atop the city wall, some 30 feet up, the single Peforri guard strolled away whistling a happy tune, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Sanachi stayed put, despite the heat from the open plaza engulfing his tiny hidey-hole. He was twelve now, not some stupid eight-year old, and he knew a set-up when he saw one. Five years on your own teaches you things. Like how to wait.
And, he hoped, how to plan his escape.
The door swung open. “I do not hesitate,” he said, eyes glazed over, forehead cut and bleeding.
“Good,” said Mary, holding the shovel tightly, lips pursed. She was ready. Her eyes said it and more. Swing.
I gave up on any rational way of storytelling a long time ago. That’s not to say I can’t tell a story simply. It just takes on different beats than most stories out there. The above is from my latest story. She Walks Alone. It’s a terrible title. Sounds like a rape-victim western. It’s about a waitress in the Midwest who kills a psychopathic trucker. Typical thriller variety. My publisher wanted something sexy but suspenseful. The strong heroine angle is popular now. She kills him with a shovel and walks out of the café alone into a snowstorm. Yeah, I know. Cliché stuff.
Yet there was something in this story that hit a nerve with a woman actually living in the Midwest. Like I said, my stories may be typical, but my storytelling is definitely off the beaten path. The only reason, at least I assume anyway, for it getting published. This woman got ahold of my contact information somehow and wrote me the following email:
Dear Mr. Kyle,
I have just finished reading She Walks Alone after a friend recommended it to me. I don’t know how you know what you know. We must meet. I will be in Seattle on Sunday. Please meet me at my hotel lobby at noon. The address is below.
He’s still alive, Mr. Kyle. I didn’t kill him.
Of course I blew it off at first as some deranged fan’s idea of a joke. Or she just wanted to jump my bones. Either way it turned me off completely. A nice “liked your story email” is much preferable. But of course more often than not these days, people sound off on social media. They love you or hate you. I couldn’t quite make out what this was, but it seemed more in the like you column. But under crazy and possibly dangerous. The fact that she was going to travel halfway across the country to meet me is scary enough. But then to believe that she was the character in my story? Or at least it seemed that was what she was alluding to. My character’s name was Mary not Martha, but I suppose delusion is delusion regardless of accuracy.
That Sunday I wasn’t even thinking about the email or Martha Anderson. I was at home working on my next manuscript. My cell phone buzzed. It was my friend Connie. She wanted to do lunch as she had something exciting to tell me. I said sure, showered, dressed, and went out. I didn’t even think about the fact that the lunch spot was in a hotel. I just knew it was a place Connie frequented. I walked through its lobby to get there.
I knew her at once. She was standing near a table, the light softly focused on her face. She was clutching her beat up bag looking desperate and completely out of place. Her eyes darted around the room fervently. She wore tight jeans and a dark leather jacket. Her makeup was loud and her hair too poofy. She looked like a groupie of an 80’s hair band.
She leapt forward at the sight of me like a bumbling child. I suppose I was scared when I realized what was happening. But mostly I was just annoyed. I had forgotten about Martha Anderson until that moment. Seeing her brought the whole ugly thing into focus and my face tightened. She immediately apologized.
“Mr. Kyle… Mr. Kyle, I’m sorry. But I had to see you. Thanks for coming. Please, could we sit down and talk?”
The desperation ebbed and flowed as she tried to control it. She wanted to assure me of her urgency, yet tried to keep it down enough not to annoy me further. I hesitated. I was just going to tell her that there was a mistake. I was going to meet a friend. But then I thought, Connie can wait a few minutes. I was early anyway. What harm could it do? Then I looked at her bag again. There could have been any number of weapons inside it. I was acting stupid. I needed to get away.
She pulled on my arm and I looked into her eyes. Tears were beginning to swell. Regardless of whatever insanity lay inside the woman, I’m a sucker for displays of human emotion. I sighed and relented, letting my body drop from its tension. I let her lead me to a seating area of the lobby by a big window. I figured, well, we are in a public area. People on all sides. I decided to speak for the first time.
“Miss Anderson. I really don’t understand what this about. What did you mean when you said ‘He isn’t dead’?”
“Bill. Bill isn’t dead. Oh, I know you called him…Brian or something in your story and me, Mary…but that’s not what matters. What matters is you got everything else right. The snowstorm, the shovel, down to the details of the truck. The feathers he had hanging from his rearview. The crack in the middle with the stuffing coming out. The way he…his hair. It was so unsettling I cried for an hour after I read it. I don’t know how you did it. Did you talk to someone? Do you know him? I just have to know. Please.”
She waved her hands around a lot. Every time her purse strap would fall from her shoulder, she’d swing it back up again. She’d look me in the eye for a moment, but realizing it was too much and that she may start crying, she’d turn away. But her eyes would always search for me again. I could smell donuts and coffee from the coffee stand across the lobby and became distracted by it. I mean, what was I supposed to say to this woman? Yes, I met Bill in Fargo and we hatched a plan to find you and put you through a wood chipper? He’s at the coffee stand now getting donuts with Bob from Twin Peaks.
I turned my hands over and shook my head. “I just made it all up, Miss Anderson. I swear. Look, you seem in earnest. But either this is some sort of sick joke or you’re off your meds…I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care. Good luck to you. I’m going to meet my friend now. Please don’t follow me. Have a nice time in Seattle.”
I stood slowly watching for a big reaction. But her head was bowed and I realized that she was crying. Again, I’m a stupid sucker. “Are you going to be all right? Can I get something or someone for you?”
“No. No, thank you. I don’t know why I thought… It doesn’t matter. Thank you for your time. I’m sorry I wasted it.”
She stood, brushed by me, and quickly made her way to the elevators, wiping her face and pulling up on her bag. That was not what I expected at all. I expected a big scene or more babbling or something. But not a quick, apologetic exit. I felt as if I was being pulled into a mystery, yet I knew all the while the whole idea was ludicrous. The woman was just some goofy fan and if I wasn’t careful, she could have a shovel waiting for me too. But I was just so taken aback by her fear and her commitment to her story and her reaction to my rejection of her claims.
I tapped her softly on the shoulder as she waited for the elevator and she spun around, shocked to see me standing there. She wiped her face again, her eyes big and anticipating. “Mr. Kyle?”
“Listen. Um. I’m probably going to regret this, but… Have you had lunch yet?” She shook her head tearfully, thankfully. “Why don’t you have lunch with me and my friend? On me. You can tell us your story—”
“I couldn’t tell anyone else, Mr. Kyle. Telling you was hard enough…”
“It’s all right. You can trust Connie. She isn’t like most of my friends, who are bunch of gossips. She’s discreet, trustworthy. I promise. And if you don’t feel right about anything, you can go at any time.”
Why was I trying to convince this woman to have lunch with me? Moments ago I wanted nothing more than to get as far away as possible, but now… I suppose she intrigued me. She was a project. A puzzle to solve, a gift to unwrap. There was something more to this whole ordeal and I wanted to see what was inside, behind all the tears of desperation. Research, it was research. At least, that was what I was convincing myself of at the time. After lunch, it would be much, much more.
Fritz couldn’t draw his self-portrait in crayon. Not unless they made a color called “liver” to match the spots that dappled his thin and aging skin. Seafoam might work for the obvious and pliable veins that shone through like some anatomical model, but the electric white of his sporadic hair wouldn’t even show up on paper. Not that anybody used paper anymore. Or crayons.
He glanced away from the back of his decrepit hand in disgust, focusing instead on the immaculate and voluptuous young woman forcing his weak arm through the sleeve of a threadbare shirt at the bedside. Erma.
She wore natural trousers that clung to her ample backside, stacking ineffability on top of perfection. Her face, free of the finest of lines and wrinkles, broadcast an unattainable air of apathy.
“The sweater, too,” he said after his shirt was on.
“No,” she replied. “It’s ancient and pilling all over the place. Besides, it’s too hot for a sweater.”
“I like it warm in the morning.”
“You like it warm all the time, old man.”
A small sting, but more than enough to crush his token resistance. Oblivious to her victory, Erma slipped a pair of sensible, elastic-waisted bottoms onto him and then transferred him to his mobility chair with a dispassionate hug. Fritz savored the contact, hollow as it was.
Her task complete, Erma sashayed to the bedroom door. Fritz watched her go, licking his chapped lips with a dry tongue, forgiving her insouciance in a quick uptake of breath. There was no outlet for his desire, but it was still there, even after all this time. She looked like she had twenty-two years, if that. They’d been married for seventy.
And then he was alone, blanketed in the quiet fug of his own making. Antiquated paper books on sagging shelves insinuated their musty potpourri into every available surface. An unintegrated mobile that hadn’t rung in twenty years wallowed on the bedside table. Three pairs of archaic eyeglasses waited for him on a desk of scattered miscellany. He panicked for a moment before finding the fourth, his favorite, already on his head.
After mustering the motivation, he rolled out of his homey cave and found Erma sprawled across the lounge in her own bedroom, a cold and minimalist wasteland echoed by the rest of the flat. She was on the phone, yapping away at the integrated hardware embedded in her palm.
“Who was that?” he asked after she’d hung up.
Her smile vanished. “Gabor,” she said. “From work.”
“Have I heard of him before?”
“Who can keep up?” she asked. “Here.” She held her palm in front of his face, showcasing a photo.
“Not so close,” he said, leaning back until it came into focus.
It was a man, Slavic, with thick, healthy hair and tasteful liner accentuating his eyes. He looked to be mirroring at about twenty-five.
“How many years does he have?” Fritz asked.
“One hundred thirty.”
“Ooh. An older man.”
Erma uttered a noncommittal grunt.
He studied the photo some more. “When was this taken?”
“The work-only party?”
“Then why is there a child on the edge of the frame?”
“Don’t be a bore, Fritz,” she said, returning the hand to her porcelain cheek. A grin, concealed too late, flashed across her rosy lips. “That reminds me. I have a Safety Committee meeting tonight.”
“Can I come too? I could use some fresh air…”
“Sorry, my dear, meeting’s at a second floor walk up. Maybe next time.”
His jaw tightened. “Is He going to be there?”
“Who? Gabor?” she asked with a yawn. “Probably.”
“Are you two sleeping together?”
“Honestly, Fritz, what kind of question is that? Of course we’re sleeping together.” The grin returned. “Amongst other things.”
His head sank. “I wish you knew how bad that hurts me.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said, inspecting her lustrous hair for split ends. “I haven’t left you. Everyone says I’m an angel for everything I do for you. That I deserve something for myself. Even your mother.”
“She probably just feels guilty for how she treated my father.”
Erma stood up. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. “So the treatment didn’t work on you two. You age. So what? We all have problems.” She glided out of the room.
“And what are your problems?” Fritz asked, chasing her into the hallway. “Herpes?”
She stopped at the front closet and opened the door. An electronic melody chimed from within. “Herpes has been eradicated for decades, old man,” she said. “And I’m not going to debate my love life with you.”
Servos whirred and The Thing staggered out of the closet beside her.
Fritz stopped. “No,” he said. “Put it back.”
“You need help,” she said. “Chemise can’t take care of you until she’s healed and presentable again, so Helping Hans will have to do in the meantime.”
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Don’t talk so stupid. What if you fall again?”
Fritz sighed. “Fine. But I’m not calling it that.”
“What? Helping Hans?”
A digital manifestation of a smiling face illuminated on The Thing’s facial display.
“Does someone need a Helping Hans?” The Thing asked in an earnest, mechanical voice.
Erma pointed at Fritz. “There’s your man,” she said.
The Thing pivoted on its rickety legs and staggered toward Fritz. “Greetings, Chemise Beauregard,” it said.
Fritz glared at his wife. “Tell me again why we settled for a secondhand robot?”
“Because Chemise charged a lot less to reprogram her RehaBot than the price of a premium rental,” she replied, strutting to the front door and inspecting herself in the mirror beside it. “We’re on a budget, silly. A cleft in my chin isn’t going to pay for itself.”
The cruise seemed to have been going on forever. How many days now since they had left Vancouver? Brad leant into the breeze with his elbows on the rail, gazing disconsolately at the distant snow-capped mountains that slipped slowly past. And there was the curious way the sea seemed to curve up to the horizon, almost as if the ship sat at the bottom of a great bowl.
A few other passengers, some standing, some in deckchairs, were sharing the view, while the inevitable attendant watched them, oblivious to the wind. Turning, Brad could see the ship’s broad wake extending behind them, diminishing to a white line that curved through the channel between the islands. Islands, sea, mountains–endlessly changing, and always the same.
The wind gusted; Brad turned to go in.
“Had enough?” came a quiet man’s voice from beside him.
Brad turned to see an old man in a deckchair, his head turned enquiringly. “Nearly!” he said with a laugh. “It seems ages since we left Vancouver. How many days is it now?”
The man grunted and turned to gaze again at the horizon. He wore a cap and sunglasses and was wrapped in blankets. Must be very old, Brad thought. In truth, that had been one of the disappointments of the cruise. Cruising was a retirement thing; his mates’ ribbing about ‘the pick of the Alaskan lasses’ had proved sadly wide of the mark. Most passengers were like this chap, in their declining years. There were few young people, fewer children.
Brad tried again. “I can’t remember our last landfall.” This was almost true–somehow the smooth succession of days made it hard to track the passage of time.
The man nodded. “My wife feels the same.”
As if on cue, an angular but sprightly woman tripped out of the swing doors from the ship’s interior and grasped the back of the deck chair.
The old man raised a limp hand. “Elsa, have you met my young friend?”
The woman smiled, her face crinkling into lines, and extended a bony hand. Brad clasped it and introduced himself. Elsa proved responsive and, glad of the contact, Brad vented his frustrations with the cruise, the sameness of everything, the unvaried food.
“Oh, my daughter’s just like you!” Elsa said delightedly. “You must meet her–don’t you agree, Henry?”
The taciturn figure in the deckchair inclined his cap, and Brad also agreed. It was determined that they should meet at lunch. “We are the Ullmans,” Elsa confided; “the waiters will know our table.”
Excusing himself, Brad glanced once more at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The sameness was uncanny: he could almost swear he had seen a particular double peak before. It was if the mountains were sliding past them on an endless conveyor belt. As Brad stepped into the warmth of the ship’s interior, his last impression was of Henry gazing fixedly at the horizon like the eternal watcher in some Greek legend.
I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.
I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.
Where am I?
I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?
A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.
Think, damn it. Think.
My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.
I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.
A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.
My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.
The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.
Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.
The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.
The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.
The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.
I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.
I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.
“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”
Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.
The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.
Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.
I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.
The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.
The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.
“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”
No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.
I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.
The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.
Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.
My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.
A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.
Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?
The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.
All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.