Word on the Street

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Write about a mysterious figure in one’s neighborhood.... view prompt

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Contemporary Science Fiction Mystery

he hasn’t Florence! Why would I lie to you? He hasn’t broken routine for two years—two years! This man hasn’t done anything, and let me repeat that again, anything, out of character. No man can stick to a routine that strict, it would be quite impossible! If you ask me, I would say he has a secret. Actually, speaking of which, word on the street says he has an identical twin brother. . .

—in conversation from Margaret Mackin

to her neighbor, and best friend, Frances Fleming,

two years and three months

after the mysterious arrival of young John Doe

John was known for his predictability, and he rather liked it.

Word on the street said John left his house, which was squarely located on the corner of Berkshire Street, at promptly 7:25 every morning to make it to work right on time, not a minute more, not a minute less; just as he preferred it. The women in this neighborhood had noticed his car pulling into the garage, also to be noted how prompt he was, no later, or sooner, than 6:35 every night. All the older ladies had a habit—no a mission—in figuring out what made John tick. John's mystery was a puzzle needed to be solved; although if you asked John, he was quite contemptuous with his routine lifestyle, even if it did seem too nit-picky for a man of his age in their eyes. At least, he could pick-up this much from their daily gossip sessions. Oh yes, he knew what they said about him.

John knew of their squabble, it was hard to avoid after all, as they were the biggest gossips in town. He caught their looks behind windows—at any time of day—and couldn’t ignore their curious gazes. He found it rather flattering if anything.

He quite enjoyed the attention, in an odd way.

It wasn’t exactly who was giving him this unrelenting attention, it was more the promise of him being seen. He enjoyed being seen, and listening to their gossip pleased him, even if it wasn’t necessarily in his favor. Just the other day Wendy Winthrop, a kind old lady who enjoys gardening and having tea in her well-tended yard, actually spoke-up about believing he had three wives. 

He held in a gasp when he first heard it. It was one thing to talk about his career—which everyone believed him to work for secret services—but having three wives? John hasn’t managed to snag one, let alone three

It was fun to think about, as John always did on his drive home every Friday, recollecting the oddest snippets of the week. This week he decided Jane Jennings’s riveting tale, of his surgical success, in saving a child, deserved a win. Although he knew it couldn’t be possible since a single drop of blood could cause him to pass out. No medical school for him, but it was hilarious to think about nonetheless. He liked accounting, it was all numbers and mathematical data and raw values that were predictable

Just like him. 

He was pulling into the driveway and he saw the oddest thing. A girl. Who wasn’t anyone he had seen before—wait, maybe—no, it was not anyone he knew. He checked his memory, and her cherry-red face didn’t ring any alarms; he had checked, twice.

John left his car—after turning off the car of course, he just drove from work and heading inside—and went to talk to the small girl. As curious as he was, she was still a child, so he had to act cautious enough not to scare her away. 

“Hello.” He looked down at the small girl, and held a hand out for her to shake. It was the proper way of greeting someone, he knew that much.

She didn't move an inch, only blinking every few seconds.

“Are you going to shake, or are you—”

The young girl shook her entire body, making her hair a mess in the process.

He lowered himself to his knees, and placed his arms on the girl’s shoulders, leveling his gaze into her eyes. “Why are you here, is there anything—”

She shoved a letter into his face, nearly giving his cheek a paper-cut in the process. “You are quite impatient aren’t you?”

The young girl bobbed her head up and down, her body nearly falling over while doing as such.

“You didn’t have to answer that, but I appreciate the quick thinking nonetheless.” He gave her one of those poster-child grins, and she replicated it back to him. This entire situation was odd, and John wasn’t a large fan of odd. Tucking the letter into his shirt-pocket, he looked about at the windows. 

They needed to get inside before everyone along Berkshire Street believes this girl is the 'mystery child' John saved in his miracle surgery. He wouldn't mind the rumor, as it helped make him be seen as anything other than the predictable man he was, but he needed to see why this girl would come to see him.

He needed to get the bottom of this, and standing outside would do nothing. He was a practical man after all, and John would solve the problem, even if it would ruin his streak of being predictable, he'll find the solution. He just needed to get inside before he could catch an awful cold, or even worse a virus, from staying out too long. Maybe a warm cup of coffee will do just the trick. . .


…that John is a funny sort. I have never seen anything like it before—wobbling up to the front door and being stiff from head to toe—you’d think he was a piece of cardboard learning to walk. I truly don’t think he—No not bored, Candice, board. As in—oh, your hearing is getting worse, I don’t know why I put-up with you.

—in conversation from a sniggering Alice Anderson

to her childhood friend, Candice Cooper,

three months

after the mysterious arrival of John Doe

He drank coffee, which he never did when it was late, but gosh darn it, this was serious.

John was a stickler for the rules—even the ones he placed on himself—and he didn’t have caffeine in the evening, but his plans were already haywire so why not? He set himself down, snuggly enough in the armchair to resist the urge to put the mug of coffee beside the sink, and opened the letter. 

He peered past the letter, afraid to attract the attention of the squeamish girl sitting across from him. Other than her fidgeting in her seat, she’s not doing much else. The first red flag. Her eyelids aren’t fluttering as they were minutes before, second, her face wasn’t rosy in color under the lamps’ light, third, and her chest wasn’t rising and falling as it should, and a fourth. His head was heating up, getting a major headache just thinking of the issues before him. It was shocking, all these red flags almost reminded him of himself three years prior. Almost.

She knows better than this, she must. How could she leave The Strip if she couldn’t? He was released three years earlier, but they haven’t trained them much differently since his departure, right? That would be ridiculous, she must know the rules; they all knew, otherwise they wouldn't be permitted to leave.

She must be a newer model, but didn’t they learn quicker than his generation? They have been flaunting the newer blueprints for years, but was it all just bluff? That made John scoff, classic models were just as good as the rest—this would prove it.

Was she malfunctioning, and does she know? He didn’t want to give up his cover, just in case she wasn’t aware, but one can never be too sure. Malfunctions were getting more common these days, but they wouldn’t send malfunctions out of The Strip, otherwise it would just be chaos, and their true purpose would be revealed. It should never come to that.

Why was she here of all places? John knew his time would come, but his computing program wasn’t as skilled as others out in the field. Some older models were out for decades before being assigned their first case as a Livewire, how was he so different

He was getting ahead of himself, and he would have to reboot his systems.

JNE182-339 was staring up at him, reminding him where his head had to be—literally, and metaphorically speaking. 

He got up, trying to calm the burning along his temple, and shuffled over to the medicine cabinet. His mind was running a thousand miles a minute, and he knew what this would lead to, he didn't want to end up like—never mind them. He had to focus on this, or more specifically, her.

JHN179-985 frantically pulled out a paperclip from one of the shelves, and placed it into a slot directed behind his right ear. Feeling the cooling buzz of circuits run along his head, his headache fell away, bringing him back to his calm, always practical, self. 

Feeling as he should, he closed the cabinet and walked back over to the letter. JHN179-985 avoided the girl’s curious glances, resulting in more questions from him. Shouldn’t she be used to this? She is staring at me as if I grew three arms.

His eyes ran through the rest of the letter at lightning speed, glad for dropping the human act of reading at the speed of a turtle, and realized the issue. The little thing looking back at him, didn’t realize she was a robot—in fact, she doesn’t know anything other than the fact of what’s here and now. She is damaged, removed from the algorithm, having been over-fried from her overloaded analog. She has failed a mission, and has been casted-aside for her failed efforts. As if she wasn’t made to spy on humans, with the ability to level-out forests and calculate the solutions to complicated formulas in a matter of milliseconds, but instead reverted to a child who lost her memory in a terrible accident. 

The small girl finally had the courage, or more likely, found the ability to speak-up over JHN179-985’s thoughts. “Why,” she hesitated, taking in more around her, “Why am I here? Where is Mom, or Gramps?”

They must’ve given her base memories, just in case her mission backfired. At least that hasn’t changed since I left. “Hello, I am John,” replying with the familiarity of his human name, "I am your uncle, do you remember me?" It was a stretch, but it was all his systems could think of when she was staring back at him with her doe-like eyes. 

She shook her head.

He cleared his throat, “Ah, I see. They did say you lost a bit of your memories, but don’t worry you are here safe with me.” He gave her a warm hug, and she didn’t miss a beat in returning the favor.

“I—I feel safe. . . I don’t know why, but I do. Thank you,” she hugged tighter, “Uncle John.”

He let her hug him far longer than a normal human should—her internal memories had been reset, and he wasn’t too cruel at pointing this one flaw out—and released her, as she did him. “Do you remember your name at least? I can tell you if you’d like, would you be okay with that?”

She shook her head, then nodded, then she did a weird circle as she tried to answer both questions all at once. He brushed back the hair flying into her face, stopping the girl from overheating from the barrage of questions. 

She was back to square one, he realized, but he was there once too. As a Livewire, it was his job to take defaults, such as her, and teach them how to replicate human behavior, correctly. He knew what he was signing up for when he started this job, but he never realized just how soon it would be. JHN179-985, or the man with the better known alias of John Doe, had to do this right. Even if she could make his seemingly not-so-mysterious life as an unmarried bachelor revealed as a ruse to all the neighboring and gossiping grandmothers, he still had to treat this delicately. He had to be patient, and predictable. He knew what to do, for heaven’s sake—he specialized in it. John can train JNE182-339 to be the perfect human, he must, he was built for it. All that she needed now was a name, and a good one at that.

He placed her onto his lap, as he was trained to do, and came up with the perfect name for her. “Your name is Jane. Jane Doe.” His past would remain to be a mystery, to not only the gossiping ladies along Berkshire Street, but also Jane. It would be a stretch but maybe, maybe, they could just pull this off without a hitch. . .

July 17, 2021 03:25

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1 comment

Alex Sultan
10:14 Jul 21, 2021

I like how you meshed the sci-fi element into this story - I always find the use of human-like robots really cool and interesting to write/read about. I enjoyed reading this :)


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