Harold didn’t recognize this room. He had moved instinctually as he rose from the bed, joints popping like normal as he tilted upward and swung his old legs over the side and into his slippers. He hobbled with an elderly gate over to the sink to wash and brush and shave. Looking at the recessed sheet of polished metal before him, he didn’t recognize the face. Looking down, he didn’t recognize the sink.
His heart pounded in his chest as panic crept through him, and he turned, no longer sleepy-eyed to look around and try to remember how he had gotten here. The room was white… too white. Everything shined with an oppressive brilliance, and the walls seemed to be made of some vinyl-like material wrapped over foam.
“What the hell?” he thought. “I’m in a padded room.”
There were no cracks or seams anywhere. The bed was built up from the floor with no space beneath it, and the single end table was built out from the wall, unable to be moved. He was inside an opaque fishbowl, and he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here.
A small two-stage light glowed red above the only door, and even though his lifetime of conditioning told him the meaning of red, he moved to it and gave it a shove. Nothing.
His panicked mind was in problem-solving mode as he began to feel around the edges, searching for a trigger or a grip, but then he stopped suddenly. He didn’t know where his family was. How the hell did he get here? Why couldn’t he remember anything? And where was Jane?!?
He was pacing now, frantic. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his daughter, and that was suddenly the most important problem. Had he been in some sort of coma? Did he have a psychotic break?
He sat on the bed and began to retrace what he could-- He woke in this room alone, locked in. His face was so old he didn’t recognize it. Even his hands were pocked with liver spots, poorly fit skin, and the bulging veins of an elder. Moreover, he didn’t feel like himself either. He felt weak, decrepit. It occurred to him now that even standing had required some effort.
Harold took three deep breaths, holding before releasing, just as they had instructed him in his anger management classes. His joints cracked again as he leaned forward and stared at the floor.
“Think, Harold,” he said. “Think before acting.”
He tried to direct his thoughts to the night before, but he still drew a blank. “This is a nightmare,” he thought. “My family could be in trouble. They could be hurt. They could be dead. And here I am, too stupid to remember what happened yesterday.”
He allowed himself to reach back further. What was the last thing he could remember?
Harold closed his eyes and searched. A day began to come to him. It was a sad day, but he didn’t yet remember why. He was standing in a pressed suit, his frame still stout like he was used to. He held his hands clasped solemnly in front of his waist, and his head was bowed. He wasn’t crying, but he felt like he should be. The sun was hot on his balding head, and people around him probably mistook the sweat beads that ran down his face for tears. They were all well-dressed too.
Jane was there in her adult form. He remembered sneaking a look at her now and then in between the preacher’s thoughts and prayers, and when she’d catch him, she would return the glance with a hateful countenance. She was angry with him, like she always was back then. It was her mother’s funeral, and the emotions of the day still played as hatred from her eyes. How long ago was it? Harold tried to remember.
He had seen her again after she left that day, but it was several years later. She had taken a job at the company. He didn’t remember what it was called or what her position was, but it was the biggest technology company in the world, and it was quickly eradicating all competitors. When she accepted, he had hated the news. Why would anyone want to waste their life making gadgets and toys to waste the lives of others? No one really needs a phone that can connect to the internet or a robot that will do all your work for you.
Jane had been ecstatic to tell him the news. It was the first time she had come to his home since her mother had died. He welcomed her at the door with open arms, but she brushed them aside and plopped down on the couch where she used to sit when he’d read her stories. Her eyes glowed as he asked her what was up, and she stumbled over the words to spill them out before the gravity somehow expired.
“I got it!” she blurted, bouncing a bit as she said it.
“Got what?” he replied.
Her eyes rolled, and she took a deep breath.
“What do you mean, ‘got what?’”
He could feel her getting annoyed already. He had given her his short temper.
“I got the job, of course!” she said, looking excited again. “I finally get to work for the company. You know… my dream job.” She leaned her head forward and looked through the tops of her eyes expectantly.
“Oh, yeah! That. The job… of course. Were there many, uh… applicants?” Harold did his best to show interest, but he was disappointed inside. He felt the same then as he did now. The company was getting rich making people lazy and dumb. They provided all the digital crutches people liked to carry with them and now they were talking about robots to do all your work too!
Harold’s lack of enthusiasm struck Jane’s heart.
“I should’ve known,” she surrendered as she stood. “What was I thinking coming here with good news? You always find a way to remind me that my life is a mistake!”
“It’s not that, Jane. I just thought you were here to spend—.“ Too late. The door slammed behind her. Had she even remembered it was his birthday?
Harold remembered how sad that had made him. He had hung his head for a few moments there in the empty living room, and a single tear had dripped down his cheek. He had quickly wiped it away so that he didn’t have to recognize his weakness and took a deep breath, holding it for just a moment, then releasing it as fire. Anger replaced his sadness, and he coped the way he had been taught… the same way he had taught Jane.
“To hell with her then!” he had screamed to an empty room. “To hell with all of them!”
He had searched frantically for something to help him quell that feeling that now threatened to explode. Ah, yes… the trusty coffee table- always available for abuse.
He’d show all of them. The coffee table shattered against the brick fireplace… not so trusty now. Some of the wood shards hit the phone as they fell and caused its bell to sound slightly. She never called him either. He’d tried all Jane’s life to show her how much he loved her, and she couldn’t even pick up the phone.
“Well, I’ll remove the damned option then,” he remembered thinking, as he ripped the cable from the wall.
Two of Harold’s neighbors had been walking by when they heard him screaming and crashing through the living room. They had stopped to peer at the house and discuss the “somethings” that should be done when the telephone shattered through the living room window in front of them and struck one of them, Tracy, in the head.
Her husband watched, mortified, as her face changed suddenly to confusion, and a single, quick stream of blood crawled from her head down her face. He didn’t have time to react as she fell backward and struck her head again, this time on pavement.
That was how Harold had gotten the doctors’ attention. The scrutiny never let up after that. Harold’s temper only seemed to grow in strength as his other faculties declined, and he could remember now how he’d lost the house. He could also remember Jane’s face as she signed the papers committing him to this facility. She almost seemed… satisfied.
“Here I am worrying about her, and she’s the one who put me in this hell,” he thought, as he leaned back, still sitting on the foam bed in the foam room with the door with the red light. “She should’ve never started working at that damned company.”
The company ran this facility, he suddenly remembered, and their shitty robots were everywhere outside that door. “It’s probably best the light stay red then,” Harold grumbled. “I don’t wanna speak to one of those bastards.”
Now that he could remember how he had gotten here, he just needed to remember how long it had been. His body felt ancient. His face looked ancient. Why couldn’t he remember yesterday? Or the day before?
A deep rumble interrupted his thoughts. He had also forgotten to eat.
As soon as this occurred to him, the light above the door switched to green with a loud buzz, and a small slit opened in the bottom. In slid a tray with a plastic lid. It startled Harold, but his body reacted. Before he realized he had stood, he was halfway to the door.
“What is going on with me?” he thought.
When he opened the lid, he immediately heard a sweet, smooth female voice in his head. It startled him, but it reminded him of Jane, so he was instantly calmed.
“Good Morning, Harold. Your company meal plan has allotted you a healthy portion of several products. Today’s mixture was specially selected to ensure your memory is in tip-top shape. Please remember- Should you need anything at all, simply hit the alert button that’s comfortably nestled behind your right ear. I’m happy to assist.”
“What?!?” his own voice rang in his head. As he reached his hand behind his right ear and rubbed the skin, he felt a small lump about an inch back, and when he pressed it, he heard a tone.
“How may I assist you today, Harold?” the voice asked.
Harold thought of so many things at once. He just couldn’t decide. Where was he? How long had he been here? When could he leave? Did he ever get to go outside? One question showed much brighter than the rest though.
“Where’s Jane?” he pleaded.
“I am Jane, Howard. You’re currently in the company home for retired employees. You’ve been here for 17 years. You may not leave on your own recognizance. You get to go outside often. Currently, you are under holding, as you had a bit of an incident 3 days ago.”
“What do you mean, ‘you’re Jane?’” he demanded. “You’re one of those things. And what do you mean I can’t leave?!? What’s this about being jailed? What incident?”
“Please try to remain calm, Harold. We wouldn’t want you having another medical emergency. I’ll administer a sedative in your atmosphere. That should help.”
“What? No! Don’t….” Harold forgot what he was saying for a few moments as warmth flooded over him. He felt as high as a kite, and he couldn’t help but smile. “What… was I saying?” he asked the empty room.
“That’s better. Your blood pressure has lowered to near your normal level. You had asked me several questions, and the answers will follow. Your daughter Jane is the persona of each and every assistant’s software. Her idea of an ideal personality is to whom you speak now. She was chief coder when my program was written, so in essence, I am Jane. You cannot currently leave your disciplinary holding because of an incident involving another resident of which you were the primary aggressor.”
Harold’s head was swimming. “What did I do?” He chuckled dreamily.
“You bit a man’s ear off.”
Now Harold was laughing heartily. “What?”
“You had a disagreement with another resident regarding a certain park bench in the infinity pool area, and you had a physical altercation. During the interaction, you bit his ear off. His family threatened to sue the company, and your daughter was quite distraught. She was able to settle with them out of court for a large sum of her personal savings and retain her position as head of programming. Part of the settlement was your temporary confinement until more suitable quarters can be arranged for the both of you.”
Harold wasn’t laughing anymore. “I don’t remember any of that. Tell me why I don’t remember anything… and when can I see Jane? The real Jane.”
“Your brain has developed plaques that have disabled a multitude of neurons responsible for cognitive functioning. The condition has had several names. I believe you would recognize ‘dementia’ or ‘Alzheimer’s Disease.’”
“Oh, god, no,” he blurted. An entire lifetime of worst nightmares had just been realized. “What about Jane?”
“Your daughter visits you once per week- every Thursday.”
“What day is today?” he quickly responded.
“Today is Friday.”
Harold hated this voice in his head. He barely knew the voice, but he knew he hated it. He couldn’t shake the angry feeling that was filling his stomach slowly as the sedation began to fade. He also couldn’t help but believe it in everything it said. He was lost, and this voice was guiding him to the answers he sought. He needed it. He hated that he needed it.
“So, six more days, Jane?” he asked.
“Six more days, Harold. Is there anything else that you need?”
Harold tried to think of a request as he removed the wrapping from a wheat-bun sandwich. His mind wandered, and he thought of a day in his backyard once, when he was drinking a cold drink and watching Jane play in the playhouse he had built her. “I need to see Jane. When can I see her again?”
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That was amazing!!! Everything flowed so well and I was completely drawn in!!! You are such a talented writer and I am so glad that you and Jerry started doing this. I look forward to reading many many more my friend!!! Just amazing!!
Well hello, friend. Thank you for the feedback. Very kind words. I'm glad we started this as well. We've cleared some cobwebs, that's for sure. I think you'll like the next story as well... the main character at least. ;) Will you be writing with us also?
Brilliant. This may be the best story of yours I've read so far. It's polished. The pacing is spot on. The flow from present to past and back again is seamless. Best of all the story is so engaging and satisfying. This is one of the best examples of art and craft I've ever read. If we weren't friends IRL and I didn't know it was yours, I would have thought that I was reading a SciFi story from The Year's Best SciFi anthology. Well done. Keep them coming, because I look forward to reading them all.
Wow! Those are incredible compliments. I'm glad I get to read these words on a Monday. They remind me that doing this is worthwhile. Even if I'm not selected, your words are prize enough, Jerry. I look forward to seeing how our competition continues to grow our skills.
THIS IS GENIUS! I NEVER THOUGHT TO MAKE IT SO A CHARACTER CAN’T REMEMBER THE DATE CAUSE OF ALZHEIMER'S! THAT’S INCREDIBLE! Your writing is amazing! I was so invested by the time I’d finished the story omg!!!
I'm happy you enjoyed it. I decided to produce a sequel because I felt that Harold's story wasn't/still isn't finished. Perhaps an "Empty III?" :) Thank you for the feedback.
Unfortunately, I never received notification that this story was accepted and added to the contest. I'm not really sure why, as it matches the same style and tendencies of my other two submissions. I have asked for clarification from Reedsy and received no response. Perhaps I'll be continuing my writing elsewhere without seeking the gratification of contest. Thank you for the likes I received in the short time I was here. I have one almost ready for this week's contest. I will submit that one, and then I'll likely be finished here....