The man had grey leathery skin like the outside of a purse passed down through generations. Sunspots danced over the wrinkles of his hands, his cheeks, his forehead. His fingers were short and bulbous, the joints rusted over with arthritis. Bags crouched beneath his eyes, shiny and bloated and slinking slowly down his cheeks. His eyes themselves were a dull brown, cloudy with age. They flitted over every surface in the room - the cherry wood coffee table in the middle, the light pink chairs lining three of the four walls, the news magazines thrown about in heaps on the secretary’s counter. He clutched a grey and brown newsboy hat in his age-damaged hands, his fingertips turning pale yellow with pressure where they gripped the fabric. Aside from his gaze, the man didn’t move, his old shoes stuck to the cold linoleum floor, his fingers held fast to the hat, his head stiff atop his unmoving neck.
The air in the room was hazy, like fog had somehow drifted in from the sea just outside. The old man wondered if he was simply imagining it or if the cool humidity was real. His eyelashes felt heavy with the prospect of dew collecting on them and he remembered when he was a boy out by the coast. His father would wake him up early to take him out fishing on their little boat.
“Be a fisherman, like your old man,” he had said. “I’ll be doing this long after boys half my age lose their Usefulness.” His father slung the fishing line out into the dark water. The old man, then young, had climbed up onto the safety railings slick with precipitation and perched on the edge like a seagull about to take flight. “That or the sharks ‘ll get me and I won’t even have to worry about it!” his father had exclaimed with a sneaky glance at his son, eliciting a bubbly, jubilant laugh.
The old man in the waiting room twitched a finger along the seam of the hat, where the soft fabric met the hard bill in the front. He was a different man than he thought he would be when he was younger. He cared about things his younger self would have scoffed at. He disagreed with things he used to think were right. He married a woman - a beautiful, happy, imaginative woman. He chuckled to himself, recalling a time when he had vowed off icky girls, simply happy with the company of his father and his mother and the boat by the coast. But he had met a woman, and he had married the woman, and he had watched the woman in the early blue light of morning paint and paint and paint.
The old man closed his murky eyes. He saw her in the darkness behind his eyelids, the vast expanse of his fading memories. He saw her honey eyes, scrunched up in a smile. Her skin in the moonlight, the noonday light, the morning light. Her eyes squinted shut, her mouth open in a laugh he couldn’t now remember the sound of. His nose wrinkled up in pain, remembering the paint in the basement, how she would haul the easel up the stairs each morning before the town woke up. He remembered when she first told him, when she showed him a painting of the coast and the boat and the seagulls flying blind in the fog. She wasn’t scared of anything.
He remembered when They found out. He remembered coming home with flakes of wood on his sleeves, splinters in his fingers that had found their way through his work gloves. He remembered the front door swinging loosely on its hinges and he thought of reprimanding her, for the fog would now make the house cold and wet. But there were canvases in the yard, paintings he hadn’t recognized until he was making his way up the walk. Paintings strewn about the wet grass. Waves and beaches and sailboats and seagulls and the rare image of himself, smiling helplessly against the dismal green backdrop of the front lawn. He remembered her, inside, crying on the bottom step, two androids rolling about the house, throwing paint cans and paintbrushes outside, down the front steps. He remembered her dark braids falling down around her face, her eyes red and puffy when she finally looked up. He remembered wanting to pick her up and touch her face and wipe the tears away and he remembered thinking maybe he could just keep one thing from the yard, maybe he could go back out and pick up a paintbrush for her and hide it and keep it and she could still be happy and - he remembered his grief turning to anger - anger at the androids and the president and the stupid Termination Centers and the idea that a person could so suddenly become Useless, especially a person like her. But They had taken her away despite her fully functioning fingers, her working legs, her eyes which could see so well. They took her away because of her mind, because her mind had lost its Usefulness, because she had been “plagued by the disease of creativity and it was imperative that she be Terminated as soon as possible before she had the chance to distract others with her Useless thoughts”.
The old man opened his eyes and looked up at the secretary behind her desk. She had a curved, feminine body and big striking blue eyes like skylights set into an empty house. Her head was tilted down, her silicone fingers typing nonsense on her keyboard, the pattern of tapping and the face of a beautiful woman meant to put the old man and others like him at ease. But the old man was the only one in the room today, and the sound of the tapping pattern repeating itself every minute only reminded himself he was alone, not only in the room but in the world.
His knee jolted, bouncing once and then remaining still again. Was he alone? He listened to the android tapping the keyboard and wondered for a brief moment if she was simply thrown away once her circuit stopped working or if she was given a nice waiting room to sit in and boil in her thoughts. He wondered if she had thoughts. He wondered if she remembered the people who passed through here. Did she feel sorry for them? He thought of her fingers, made to look young and new and Useful.
He risked a glance down at his own wrinkled fingers, scared that he might see them as They saw them. But he only saw fingers. The arthritis was invisible and unnoticeable albeit the crooked way his fingers rested on the hat and the burning, grating sensation he often felt in the mornings. He could still hold flowers and brush hair away from someone’s face. He could still hold his hat and fold the collar of his shirt. He could pick the petals off a daisy and feel water against his skin like silk. He could still see the fog rolling in from the ocean and getting trapped by the mountains. He could see men and boys fishing in the early morning, women laughing as they walked through the cobbled streets outside his house. He could hear birds in the morning and see the early blue light paint shadows on his weathered skin. He could imagine her now, her face lifted with a delicate smile as she painted. He could smell the flowery scent of her shampoo. He could taste the butter and garlic and cheese she would use in every recipe. He could see the clouds and the sunrise and the sunset and the stars and the glowing moon.
But he couldn’t work with his hands anymore, and for that he was Useless.
And for that he was to be Terminated.
He set his thin lips together in frustration and stood suddenly, his joints aching and popping in protest. He approached the secretary hesitantly, unsure of what he was about to do. He had heard of people trying to leave, but those were only the ones who had to be taken to the Centers forcefully. He had technically come here voluntarily, at the beckoning of only one demanding - and probably automated - letter from the local Center. He was sure others had tried. How could one not when set into a room to ponder over one’s imminent death?
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the old man muttered, clutching his hat tighter in his two hands. The android looked up and smiled sweetly at the man. Her manicured fingers stopped tapping on the keyboard, instead hovering just above the keys. “There’s been a mistake,” the old man said.
“Mistake?” The android tilted her head, but her smile stayed plastered to her face.
“Yes… I’ve not lost my Usefulness,” the old man continued, wondering where he thought he was going with this. “It seems I’ve been mixed up with someone else.”
“That’s not possible,” the android assured him. “We don’t make mistakes.”
“The androids at my workplace must have scanned my ID by accident,” he tried. “We work so close together, it’s bound to happen.”
“We don’t make mistakes,” the android said again.
“I don’t belong here.”
“Are you attempting to-”
With a burst of unexpected adrenaline, the old man reached across the counter and grabbed the wiry plastic hair atop the android’s head. He swung her head down against the sharp corner of the raised counter once, twice, three times with his powerful arms and his hands - no longer Useless.
Catching his breath, the old man let go and backed away. He was aware of the cameras in the room - aware that now They must be sending resistance drones and police androids to restrain him. Shaking, he grabbed the back of the secretary’s head and tore open her back panel where her small, rectangular android ID was buried beneath a tangle of several wires. His fingers held the ID up to the scanner at the top of the door frame - the scanner that allowed humans in and only androids back out.
The doors swung open. The old man pocketed the ID chip. He glanced back into the foggy room - the pink chairs, the cream-colored walls, the lamps in every corner - and turned back to the open air. He slipped his newsboy hat over his thin white hair, where it fit perfectly from years of wear. He wondered, briefly, how far the little boat by the coast could take him.