a short story by Jerry Zinn
Gray looked in the usual hiding places. Above the sink, the mug cabinet teemed with reminders of elementary school artwork and life affirmations. Beside the green, pleather sofa a wicker basket preserved decorative pillows and a medicine ball. Fiberglass logs in the disconnected fireplace guarded water marks on the brick. Gray’s hands were still fumbling for a nonexistent bottle in a gap in the attic insulation when his wrist buzzed.
Gray heaved his back against an exposed stud. The buzzing stopped. As he stumbled down the stairs his tongue Velcroed to the roof of his mouth. Burrowing deep into a mess of blankets on sofa, the chills crept millipede up his spine. Outside the sun beat down on barren, cracked earth.
His hands shook, and after laying on them for a while they went numb. When his watch buzzed again, he did not budge. One year passed since the house went empty – three hundred and sixty-five days lived out in centuries.
A clay saucer sat on the coffee table. At its center was a silver sensor bright from the light streaming through the blinds. Through Gray’s murky vision an aura formed around the device. With prickly fingers, he snatched the sensor. His clumsiness sent the saucer to the floor, transforming it into a mess of glazed shards.
Gray attempted to place the sensor on his temple, but it slid off. Against his pallid skin the polyester blanket was abrasive as he wiped. Finally the sensor stuck, and Gray closed his eyes, a smile crawling across his face as the memory materialized.
There was a trip once, to a lake upstate. They parked in an outcropping where a tire swing dangled from the long arm of a sturdy oak. Skater bugs shot across the brown water. Those gentle, miraculous movements enamored Gray’s daughter, while the two older boys traded flips, waves disturbing the algae, sending the bugs into a frenzy. Reclined on a plaid towel, Gray’s wife giggled. The boys competed for their mother’s laughter. They stood by and counted her snorts as she snatched for a breath.
All of it was manufactured – the oak, the skaters, the algae – machines run on circuit boards, an inorganic illusion. Everyone knew about the mechanics, but Gray and his wife, whose oldest memories contained real nature, understood.
Down the hall the grandfather clock chimed a third time, tearing Gray from the memory. Without regular maintenance the heirloom suffered. During the long year the bells served as painful percussion, each strike a reminder of life’s escape.
Cold shivers gave way to radiating heat. A shoebox-sized robot from Roth Industries chirped and folded the pile of blankets. Sensing the basket was full, it stacked them on the floor behind the recliner. Baseboards and furniture legs bore scuffs and gashes. Each time the robot made contact it apologized shrilly, “My mistake! My mistake!”
Gray found solace in the roving helper for a period. When he was drunk their exchanges were numerous. When dryness overcame him, the robot’s auto-generated responses were shallow and defeating. As the soundtrack to Gray’s demise, the robot preferred Rachmaninov. Gray once adored classical music. Now he detested it, but he could not muster the strength to end the torment.
While returning to its charging station, a banner for Roth Industries filled the robot’s display. Gray looked when his wrist vibrated. The messages matched: “Wellness cleanse recommended.”
Robots knew humans on an atomic level. Terabytes of biometric data made them as effective with targeted messaging as Lysol once was with germs.
Gray’s face was hollow, the skin loose wrapping for brittle bones and a tortured soul. Leaving the house in his transportation pod was akin to traveling through a new planet. Now a foreigner in a bleak world, nothing bright remained in the city. Not the neon signage, not the thirteen-story model blowing him the same kiss she’d send to thousands more, not the sight of people chatting as though their lives held meaning. Self-loathing cast a pall over those colorful reminders of what he no longer possessed. The pod drove under signs with variations on, “This way, Gray! You’re minutes from happiness!” After, the words changed: “This way, Maria! You’re minutes from happiness!”
Inside the pod it was still, but once outside the protection of glass and metal, people banged into Gray’s shoulders, pushed him from behind. Intention would have made it better. But Gray was a nameless victim, unworthy of individualized mistreatment. Alleyways narrowed into anthill tunnels, and the smell of burning plastic consumed the stifling air.
“Scan!” demanded the Roth Industries guard. Marble eyes bored through him from the mail slot, blinking. Mimicking an entrance to old neighborhood homes, the door was wooden, painted a sharp yellow. The brass visage of a lynx served as its decorative knocker.
Robots blinked in a strict ¾ rhythm. Rachmaninov maintained Gray’s sense of timing. Reaching out from the yellow door a stainless-steel wall divided the complex from the city. Unlike the streets, Roth Industries’ exterior was free of graffiti, free of the unforgivable marks of humanity. Exquisitely machined, the interminable metallic barrier was seamless.
Gray traveled beyond the door, which sealed behind him. Walls closed in, pressing him into an observation chamber. Cramped and wrapped in acoustic foam, the silence cried. Then it went black. A laser twirled in a choreographed dance, measuring his every imperfection.
“Gray Anders? Would you mind confirming your identity?” asked a utilitarian female voice.
“Yes it’s—” his parched throat spit out.
“Wonderful to see you, Gray.” The voice added compassion. “You’ll be feeling so much better soon. I’d love to get your consent. Would you like me to read the form?”
“In that case, may I confirm your consent?”
“Yes,” Gray replied, the s-sound stinging his larynx.
“Wonderful. However, I do need you to reply, ‘I consent,’ to confirm consent. I apologize for the inconvenience. You know how demanding counsel is. Ha hah ha.”
It was bright and organized inside Roth Industries. Sunlight stroked Gray’s arms, staving off another rising chill. His head was shaved. He was showered clean in hot water and given a yellow jumpsuit of comfortable natural fibers. How soft real cotton felt against his skin. A scooter slowed to a stop, “Gray Anders” displayed on the handlebars.
Gray and his wife always cautioned their children, “Don’t ever go in there. Roth will take everything from you, and you won’t even know it.”
Gray wondered what his kids would make of the place they villainized. His boys would love the scooters. His daughter would marvel at the tall grass – the kind that grew from soil – witnessing natural pigment on plants she could touch and smell. Not those facsimiles they knew, leaves made of bendable screens that changed shade on the first day of fall and transparent with winter’s onset – leaves that stood rigidly at attention awaiting the next line of code.
Patrons in yellow jumpsuits scootered past Gray, beaming. They balanced on one foot and reached into the swooning grass. Soon Gray would join them: happy and sanitized, his thirst slaked.
Ascribing value to memories was not a game of chance, nor a decision left to the mercy of a temperamental adjudicator. People didn’t decide these things. There were algorithms. Math assayed. The process was clinical and unerring, so Roth Industries went to great lengths to assure the populace.
Gray’s long year was a protracted hangover. Rare peaks lead to deeper, unexplored trenches. When the money ran out, the alcohol dried up, and thirst governed. He reeked of misery; the scent drenched in his itchy skin like cheap cologne. Gray’s robot knew desperation.
Soon Roth Industries would cleanse him of compulsion, life turning to a constant high. Gray would have enough money for years. Without pain driving his addiction, he would be free.
An over-padded chair welcomed him. Gray read the options. The most money, the biggest data transfer. In Roth vernacular it was the “Premium Wellness Cleanse.”
Despite endless reflection, Gray never understood why his family died from what authorities deemed a gas leak. Why did he live? Just before the needle pricked his neck, understanding spiked the dark hairs on his arms. Gray’s fingernails bent from the force of his grip.
“Roth…” leaked from his lips.
When Gray awoke his body tingled. Roth Industries, the spectacular temple of progress came into focus. He was one of those blissful people now, the ones speeding towards life with a renewed – a cleansed – worldview. When he stepped through the exit, into the mass of humanity, the aroma of burned bottles surfaced. But it was not as foul an odor as before. In his pockets he rubbed the natural cotton. Loading into the pod, the noise canceled. Gray couldn’t recall being unhappy, but he sensed his confidence was new.
Where before were reminders of societal decay, now stood suggestions of new beginnings. Gray arrived home and settled into his nest on the couch, propping his feet on the coffee table. There was no sensor. No trace remained of the broken plate or the feverish chill. With the jumpsuit cuddling his body he was optimistic.
After an hour he went to the bathroom. In the mirror he pulled his lips down and poked at the tender gums. Running his teeth along his tongue, he scraped where it felt raw. Weeks would pass before the dryness returned. It would be worse then. He would not remember the source of his grief.