Harold gazed across the long infinity pool before him as the sun slipped slowly beneath the horizon. The vivid colors did nothing for him, as he mulled grumpily over the state of the world. How had things gotten so complicated?
He reminded himself to lean back, popping his rheumatic spine and trying to relieve the almost century worth of stress and tension that had bent it. The constant pain flared and ebbed with each crack of his joints. It felt better here, felt worse there. He had learned to live with it, but some days were better than others.
Harold jolted a bit as a hard, inflection-less voice pronouncing every syllable as its own word broke his lack of concentration.
“Ex-cuse me, sir. Do you need ass-is-tance?”
Harold lifted his gaze to find a smooth, round and metallic “face” leaning down beside him. He couldn’t believe the product of all the years of humanization efforts the company had put into these things. To him, it was horrendous.
“Go away!” he yelled. “I didn’t ask for your ‘ass-is-tance,’ now did I?!?”
The machine’s digital eyes feigned surprise for a moment.
“A-pol-o-gies. I have been en-trust-ed with the care of el-ders.” Then a different voice came from the thing. It was a sweet, female voice announcing a pre-recorded message- something Harold assumed was not part of the ‘adaptive-learning conversation skills’ they had promised. “Should you need assistance, please activate one of the many emergency beacons spread around the courtyard. I'm happy to assist.”
The assistant’s head tilted slightly, and it attempted to give a reassuring squint with the eye display.
Harold snorted as the annoying imitation leaned up and began to walk away with unnatural certainty in every step. Its movements were too quick, too precise. Every gesture was an immediate execution of a program with an abrupt start, a fluid follow-through, and a quick stop. Why should he have to accept these things? He’d always done just fine on his own.
His mind began to wander again as the nearest Olfactory puffed another mist of calming fresh-cut grass.
He remembered a sunny day in their backyard where he sat peacefully baking in the sun as cold condensation dripped down the glass in his hand. A rivulet latched onto his thumb and paused, gathering strength before it burst forward a few centimeters and dripped over his knuckle. As he lifted the glass to sip the delicious mix through his paper straw, it doubled over, blocking the flow.
“God damn it!” he spouted, and he leaned forward hard. He was still fit back then, but the many drinks on the weekends were starting to form a gut that he felt crumpling into large wrinkles as he stood. He grasped the pitiful straw with his free hand and flung it to the ground, taking a huge pull from the drink.
Harold’s wife looked worried. Fiddling with something at the picnic table, she had stopped and raised her head to look at him with an expectant expression when he exclaimed. Now she was visibly relaxing again. Crisis averted.
Harold’s daughter, Jane, played noisily near the fence. She was a beautiful girl. His best creation. The only thing he ever did worth a damn. She had his eyes, but everything else was her mother’s.
She must’ve been 4 or 5, he couldn’t remember, and she was really enjoying the playhouse Harold had built a few weeks before. He must’ve had a few drinks that day too, because the playhouse stood crookedly and completely out of square. He remembered how angry it had made him. Nothing angered him more than inanimate objects… until someone later animated them, that is.
Jane had been so excited to ‘help’ him put together her playhouse. A birthday gift for a Winter-born baby, she nearly drove her parents crazy through the remainder of the season until Spring arrived. Then, at last, Harold relented. Her eyes lit with joy as he accepted that he would finally construct it for her but not before he found a nice sunny Saturday and some nice cold drinks to aid him. She had cried for having to wait just that little bit longer, and she was crying again as he built it.
Swear-words and tools flew this way and that as the alcohol had no good advice to give, and Jane was sobbing by the fence when Harold decided to just screw it. He had lost his temper this time because he “just can’t understand why I have to watch an instructional video when it could be on paper.” Computers were spoiling the world and removing everyone’s skills, and this was just another example. Therefore, he had fit the pieces together as best he could and used spare brackets and long screws to build his best attempt at the picture on the box.
A few weeks later, as Harold was sipping drinks in the sun and raging over having to use paper straws to conserve the environment, Jane was oblivious to the heartbreak from that forgotten afternoon. She would probably eventually be oblivious to whatever heartbreak he caused her today as well, but of course, these little moments would add up as a poison in Jane’s soul. He hadn’t completely lost his temper yet, but he could tell everyone was waiting. Everyone was always waiting.
True to form, the moment came when the neighbors arrived to join the cookout. Tracy was Harold’s wife’s best friend… he thought. How a person who never spoke a word could have a best friend was beyond him, but she and her husband were all smiles when they arrived, food in hand. When they were sitting at the table, ready to eat, Tracy mentioned a new sewing machine that her husband had gifted her. She was twittering on about how it was “the best thing” when Harold heard her mention that you could plug it into the computer, and it would “basically do all the work for you.” That was too much.
“Why in the hell would you want such a thing?!?” Harold shrieked. “Go ahead and forget anything you could do on your own! Just turn into a fucking leach!”
Harold flipped the table, spilling food everywhere, and the neighbors made a quick exit. They were used to seeing this side of him. They should’ve known better. Jane’s mother had run inside to hide, and Jane was crying again behind the overturned furniture.
Several years later, Harold would have his worst outburst. By this time, Jane was a young teenager, and it was a few days until her birthday. Her mom surprised her with an early present because she had been acting out lately, cutting small slits in the skin of her inner thigh, and it seemed she was on the verge of an eating disorder. It was all his wife could think of to try to lift the girl’s spirits.
She called Harold into the living room, and he stood in front of one of the ice-crusted windows as Jane looked up at him expectantly. A large ring pierced her left nostril, and he wished he wasn’t staring at it. “Where had the time gone?” he remembered thinking. One day, he had a sweet baby girl who hung on his every word; the next, an angry teenager desperately losing control while trying to prove she had it.
Harold’s heart ached as Jane’s mother dropped the gift in Jane’s lap. It was small. He should’ve known what it was, but he didn’t.
Jane looked surprised for a moment, but she quickly realized happiness was about to sneak past her and present itself to the world. With a visible shake of the head, she quelled it, forcing the angry depressed look that Harold had been obliged to adore for the last few years.
Nonchalantly, Jane grasped the paper between her fingers and ripped it. She removed the small box and flipped it over to see what was inside.
There on the cover was a picture of an Iphone- the newest model.
Harold looked to his wife. “You didn’t!” he growled.
Jane’s mother looked worried, but Harold didn’t care. He was instantly enraged. She would’ve expected this when she bought the damned thing. She must’ve accepted that this was going to happen and decided it was worth the risk. Who was she to decide on her own? Didn’t he work hard for all that they had?
“If she’s already accepted that I’ll explode, then why shouldn’t I?” he had thought, boiling inside. “She’ll remember this her way anyway.”
Jane couldn’t restrain her smile as she turned the box over again. “Mom… really?” she said excitedly.
“Great! Now I’ll be the enemy again,” thought Harold. He could see the end before the beginning.
“How could you buy her one of those mind-numbing pieces of shit?!?” he accused, inching closer to his wife. “You know good and god-damned well that those things are ruining us! You want her to end up retarded like you?!?”
Jane’s smile disappeared. Jane’s mother cowered. Tears welled in both their eyes, as one was angered, the other broken.
“Jesus, dad!” Jane exclaimed. “That is a horrible word to say, and a worse thing to call mom! What the-- What the fuck is wrong with you?!?”
Jane stood and faced Harold as he turned toward her, wild-eyed and surprised. He couldn’t believe his angel had learned to speak to him like that. At the time, he had blamed his wife. He even hit her. They both left for good.
Thinking about it now, he knew it was his fault Jane was like that back then. It was he who had spoiled his sweet angel, allowed her to mirror part of him. All of this was because of a damned smartphone. Why had he hated them so much?
A tear streamed down his cheek, and his hand instinctively jumped up to erase it. Never show weakness, his father had taught him. The sun was completely extinguished beneath the horizon now, and the sky was beginning to darken. Time to get back to his room.
Harold pushed his hands hard against the cold marble bench upon which he had been sitting, but he couldn’t lift himself. His arms quivered, and the pain in his shoulders magnified as his bottom lifted an inch upward, but he ran out of steam and plopped back down. The short impact jolted through his spine, and he felt a loud pop. Pain shot through him, and he involuntarily cried out.
Doubled over, Harold found a position where the pain wasn’t as extreme. He just needed to collect himself. He just needed some time to think.
She had said that to him once too… when her mom passed. It was the first time he had seen her since they left. She was older now, filled out and more mature. The piercing was gone. Old scars were faded. But she still had his eyes.
They stared at him now at her mother’s funeral. Everyone had left, what few were there to begin with, and only Jane and Harold remained. His soul winced at the sound of each shovel shifting dirt, but Jane seemed unfazed.
Her mother’s death had been a long time coming. She had always been sick, as long as he had known her, so it was inevitable that this moment should come. At least that’s what Harold remembered thinking at the time.
“I’m so happy to see you again, Jane,” Harold said pleadingly. “I’m sorry about your mother.”
Jane’s face was incredulous. Her eyebrows turned inward and pointed up in the center as her forehead furled.
“Are you serious with that shit?” she accused. “I haven’t seen you for years, dad, and you show up at mom’s funeral? And say you’re happy?”
He could see the fire behind her eyes as it began to flare, a fire that he had built.
“That’s not what I--,” he stammered. “I just missed you so much.” His eyes became blurry. He heard the voice of his father- “Choke them back, pansy, or I’ll really give you something to cry about.”
Harold’s face turned to stone, as he once again killed his emotions.
“Yeah…” Jane said sarcastically. “I can tell, Harold. I just need some time to think.”
Hearing his daughter use his name had sent chills through his body. He would never forget that. It was the worst sound he had ever heard.
Afterward, he watched her walk away from him, unable to reply, locked by refusal of emotion. She lit a cigarette, another stab in his heart, and she got in her car and drove away. Harold was alone.
The Olfactory spurted a new smell, and snapped him back to reality. Salisbury steak and baked potatoes. It almost smelled like the real thing… like those his wife had cooked.
Harold’s pain was mostly back to the normal level now, so he leaned back slowly and looked around. No one anywhere.
“One more try,” he thought, and he put his hands evenly beside him and tried again.
This time, he used every bit of strength he could muster, but he couldn’t even lift himself the measly inch from before. Harold was stuck, helpless. Harold was alone.
It was very dark now, and the temperature began to drop. They never allowed it to get too cold in this place though, and the assistant would come back to check on him soon. That fucking thing.
Why was a man who never would rely on anyone’s feelings to bolster his own now forced to rely on a machine that pretended to have some?
He remembered how he got the damned thing. The city had taken his house after they claimed it was dilapidated and full of trash, and his Online Property Rating had fallen below the allowable threshold. They had told him that his memory had gotten weak, and he had trouble focusing on the present. He could file for an extension to repair it if he would just submit the form online. The house’s condition was even worse after the anger that gave him.
Harold was placed in a new-age tech home, part of a pilot program that Jane had paid for. It would ensure that he couldn’t hurt himself or anyone else, and it was programmed to remind him of things daily, but it didn’t last. Looking back, he saw many foggy scenarios, often visualizing them as if he had been videotaping himself during the acts. He saw himself walking aimlessly back and forth about his few rooms, smashing things and lashing out. Logic and self-control waned, but anger remained just as strong as ever. Anytime he heard an artificial voice, each different appliance seemed to be alive and malicious, something he needed to destroy.
A few days into his biggest fit, the two arrived. One was a large man, dark-skinned and standoffish. The other was a metallic man, skinny and lacking substance. Naturally, Harold didn’t trust either of them.
He found later that the fake man was there to support, and the real one was there to restrain. Backward. It was still an early model, so it lacked the “humanity” that they programmed into the new ones. Most everything he would say, it would reply “how does that make you feel?” and then move on to solving the next programming error… Harold’s programming error.
His daughter had paid for this treatment as well. She bought this infernal attendant and the three models that followed. Finally, the company had made one that was strong but also resistant, softly built to withstand his dementia-inspired outbursts.
Its manner never changed. It couldn’t be angered or saddened. He couldn’t hurt its feelings. No matter what he gave to it, it continued to support him. Sometimes, it would just wrap its artificial arms about him and just not let go, like a careless and loving straitjacket, and as he weakened with age, it seemed to grow stronger. He hated its attentiveness. He hated its approximation of affection.
If only Jane was here. He wanted so badly to tell her all the things he was feeling… everything he was remembering… before it all became foggy again.
Harold considered attempting to stand again, but he was just too sad. Reluctantly, he reached into his pocket and grasped the fob that was attached to the lining. He took a deep breath and pressed the button hard, hoping to break it.
Immediately, an amber light blinked on above him, and he heard an automatic door slide open in the distance. It would be here soon. He had no one else to rely on. He had nothing but pain and regret and that cruel caring thing.
Harold allowed his head to slump and his mind to wander again.
“It won’t be so bad, Harold,” she said, and his name still stung when she spoke it.
“I don’t want that damned thing!” he screamed in response. “Technology’s making us weak! Once we start lettin’ these fuckin’ things carry us everywhere, our legs’ll stop working!”
She waived her hand backward in the air without even looking. “You’re being dramatic.”
He felt defeated as he quietly replied. “Why can’t you just stay, Jane?” He tried not to plead, but his voice betrayed him. One more minute. One more second. Anything.
“You’ll be fine. Try not to break this one.”
The thing was carrying him now, as he looked up at the display on its “face.” The large digital eyes were squinted at the bottom, faking satisfaction at getting to achieve its purpose. They’d really come a long way.
Harold was exhausted, but he still managed a few words before he was parked in his newest cage.
“I hate everything about you,” he said quietly.
The hard, computerized voice replied, “I am so-rry you feel that way, Har-old,” and then the smooth prerecorded female’s voice followed. It was Jane’s voice.
“Please log any operational complaints with our customer support line. I’m happy to assist.”
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Hey Eric - I got your story through the Critique Circle this week. Super job! You made Harold, and his life, so real. I can see the effect that his childhood had on his older self, and how that fell onto his wife and daughter.
Thank you for your feedback, Redd. Nice username, by the way. :) I did experiment a lot with the 3000 word limitation regarding perspective on Harold's influences. This was an entertaining project. I'll definitely be submitting again. Swing back by and let me know what you think.
I got to read the rough draft of this excellent short story. I don't want to give any behind the curtain peeks, but I will say that the changes made to the final draft make the story much stronger. I love what you did with it to bring everything together. Good job. Great first submission.
Thanks, brother. You're the best. I appreciate you showing me this project. It was a blast.
3000 words on the dot. That's gotta be worth an extra point or two, right? :D Let me know what you think.