You could take certain risks.
I’ve avoided telling you this, but your time with Natali was irresponsible and unsustainable. It wasn’t even real in the way life is supposed to be.
Leon’s holophone sounded like a siren. Missing the call would trigger a warrant for his arrest. He tapped the screen. The holophone projected a light with floating bits like moths swirling inside. The pixelated glow came into focus and took on the shape and color of a middle-aged man sitting with his legs crossed, his eyes both dead and too-alert.
Leon swirled the ice in his whiskey. The hologram reminded Leon of the TV commercials he’d seen. In the old woman’s living room the shrink bot leans in and smiles, “Your life still has worth, Joan. If you want your family to call you should ask them.” The woman nods, cries, reaches for an old rotary dial phone.
“Can I call you Leon?”
“I’m Howard, or some prefer Dr Howard which is fine.”
“They named you?”
“An engineer at Auxilium. I assume you know why we’re here. The court has ordered outpatient treatment and curative supervision for the next 60 days. Could be longer of course, depending.”
“Is that alcohol? Should we start there?”
Leon put the glass back on the kitchen counter too quickly and the whiskey spilled on the tile floor.
“You’re not supposed to be drinking during the probationary period.”
Leon looked around the kitchen, taking inventory. “Do you report back to the court?”
“Patient confidentiality still applies in most cases.” Dr Howard’s lips mimicked a paternalistic grin. “But yes I do submit a report after the 60 days.”
“Can’t they just open you up and listen? Or watch the tape?”
“I don’t record anything. I reflect on what’s been said but it’s encrypted. That was a sticking point with Auxilium.”
Dr Howard blinked. “Do you have any other questions you’d like to get out the way?”
“What were you doing before this?”
“Your case has top priority for me but I also provide end-of-life care.”
Leon threw his head back and cackled. He held up a finger and quoted from the TV commercial, “Swing classes? That’s a marvelous idea!”
“That’s senior companionship. I’m talking about palliative care. End-of-life services is for when death is close. No-one is taking swing classes. Do you want to talk about what put you in crisis?”
“Why do you say I was in crisis?”
“All your readings spiked.”
Leon rubbed the patch on his arm. After it stopped itching he’d forgotten it was there. It would come off in 30 days. Could be longer, depending.
Leon was at the school board meeting to pitch the idea of spending too much money to send his class to Washington DC for three days. “Critical engagement” was the phrase he used, like a nervous tic.
The board members looked at the handout he’d given them figuring out ways to say no.
When the meeting adjourned, Leon walked over to the coffee machine and pushed out a cup of steaming black liquid. He turned around to find a woman looking at him. She was a mother he could tell, and aggrieved. He sidestepped to the tray of creamer. “Am I in your way?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry you didn’t get your money. The trip sounded like fun.”
“It was a long shot, but I had to try. When the board says no you don’t have to feel guilty about giving up.”
She had a pinhole scar on her nostril and another through her eyebrow, old piercings. Running up both her arms were purple bruises yellowing at the edges. She caught him staring. “My son was having a hard day,” she said, touching an arm.
“His teachers won’t accommodate him. I don’t even care about the IEP any more. I would settle for ‘do no harm’.” She turned to watch the board members leave the building. “That crew...” She rolled her eyes.
“Can I ask which school?”
“The one with the idiot principal.”
“I think I know the one.”
They walked to the parking lot together. Leon waited for her to ask him for advice or maybe some dirt on faculty, but it never came. He feigned expertise in school politics to chat over drinks at the tavern across the street, a tactic so disingenuous it surprised even him.
Her name was Natali. She hung her purse on the chair and ordered a whiskey.
As she spoke he studied her face. She had a dispassionate expression belied by her presence at the board meeting.
“They don’t understand that screaming at a kid with autism isn’t going to get him to do what they want. The principal talks a good game but nothing changes. My son comes home with dried vomit on his shirt.”
Leon made a point to nurse his drink but the mammoth ice cube tricked him and he downed his whiskey in three gulps.
They both ordered more whiskeys. He offered advice where he could but teaching had burned him out and he said as much. Securing content approval from parents for his lessons was exhausting. She did part-time design work from home, prettying-up interfaces.
If she was worried about going home late and smelling of alcohol, she didn’t show it. They split the bill. In the swollen air of mid-summer he walked her to her car. She gripped his hand for a second, thanking him.
He returned to an empty house. Evelyn was working her shift at the oncology ward. They were ships in the night and had been for years. Still no kids.
His holophone buzzed. He and Natali had been in close proximity for over an hour and it triggered the automated contact exchange. She’d accepted it.
Leon tapped the screen and saw her photo and the details underneath: Natali Murino, 32, Eastland, New Hampshire.
They met again at the next school board meeting. While they were waiting for the latecomers to file in they decided to go for a drive instead.
They rolled down the windows and she sailed her hand in the wind. Leon produced a flask and handed it to her. She took it coolly, sniffed the mouth, and tipped it back. They didn’t talk until the flask was half empty.
She asked him about a day in the life of a teacher. His impressions of the parents got her laughing.
He drove to the edge of the small city and parked at the crest of a hill overlooking the resurrected drive-in theater. A lake of cars was bathed in the milky light of the screen. It was too far away to see the movie clearly. “It’s kind of eerie,” she said, passing the flask. Leon had to piss badly but didn’t want to disrupt the moment. She touched his hand and stopped at his ring, tapping it gently. “What’s the story with this?”
“She’s at work,” he said. “We don’t interact much.”
He nodded, and they watched the actress on the faraway screen throw a drink in a man’s face.
They drove back to the school parking lot. He waited for her to make a move, wishing he’d brought more than one flask. “I’m in a partnership,” she said. “That sums it up.” She opened the door and got out. “See you.”
At their next meetup Natali knocked on the car window and laughed, “Did you think it was the cops?”
She got in the car and opened the glove compartment, finding the flask. “I know your tricks,” she said, taking a swig. It was happening before Leon realized, their mouths touching, her hand clasping the back of his neck. “Should we go somewhere else?”
He drove to a strip mall and pulled around behind it. The lane was empty except for dumpsters and a parked car three stores down. Leon swept folders and notebooks off the back seat. She slid in next to him, her face serious.
They fell into each other. He felt her unfamiliar contours. She moved differently. After so many years he’d assumed he understood what this was but now it was this whole other thing.
They opened the windows for some air. The noises of a summer night were louder, clanging trash cans, a car horn, the chatter between two strip-mall cooks out of sight.
She leaned back against the window and he noticed a pendant in the dip between her collar bones. “What is that?” he asked.
She took it off and handed it to him. It was oblong shaped and silver. “Rub the back,” she said. “Clockwise.”
The face of the pendant changed entirely, a bloom of light and a minuscule movie of a girl about six riding a bike, one training wheel off the ground, her purple helmet askew. She turns around to wave.
“This is you.”
“Oh.” She looked away. “My first bike. There are a bunch of those.”
The movie changes to a skinny-armed Natali at a rock concert. The old piercings are there.
“I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Doesn’t it play on a continuous loop?”
“Forever, if you let it,” she said. “But it changes the order every time. You sync it with everything you’ve ever had on your profile.”
“Everything but the nudes.”
“So, in theory, it would eventually show your whole life back to you.”
He handed it back. “There’s more,” she said. She fished through the clothes at her feet and pulled out her holophone. Tapping on the camera she leaned into him, wrapped one arm around his shoulder, and filmed herself kissing his cheek.
“Now watch.” Natali held out the pendant. An old birthday party changed suddenly to their bare embrace from seconds ago. His timid smile, messy hair.
“Now you’re in here,” she said.
He reached for the flask. “Is that a good idea?”
“It’s three seconds in thousands of hours.” She rubbed his back. “I’ll take those odds.”
They took a long meandering drive around the edge of town. She pointed out the house where she grew up and the path to a little-known swimming hole nearby, an offshoot of the river. Leon said he’d like to see it. “Do we have to wait two weeks?”
“No,” she said, “Let’s not do that.”
Natali chose the next meeting spot, a baseball field. She pulled up next to his car and busied herself with the computer on the dash. Then she got out and opened his door. “Hey,” she said, peering in.
They drove to the swimming hole by her old house. He followed her down the path and twice tripped on the worn knuckles of tree roots. The crickets sang a wall of sound.
They reached a lagoon with an island in the middle. A white bikini hung from a tree like an old kite. “Many a virginity has been lost at this place,” Natali said. Leon laughed and they undressed under a full moon. Against the black thickets she was another moon, all pale fissures and bruises and tattoos eclipsing one another.
Natali stepped into the lake, hands out as if balancing on a tight-wire. He followed in her rippling wake and they settled in the cool water, refreshing against the muggy air. They swam out to the island. Whenever he closed in on her she flitted away as if spooked.
She took off her pendant. “I’m tired of this,” she said, and threw it away as hard as she could. It landed somewhere in the island’s weeds.
“Nice arm,” he said.
“Yeah,” she replied and swam out in the water.
Back at the baseball field Natali said, “I used to play softball.” On the pitcher’s mound she made a windup motion and hurled an imaginary ball at home plate. She back-paddled into him and he wrapped his arms around her.
He said, “Risky. People walk through here to the rec center all the time.”
“I have thoughts about that,” she said.
They undressed and made a bed of clothing on the pitcher’s mound and took turns watching each other’s face swaying in the moonlight.
The next week Natali said she wasn’t feeling well and they didn’t meet. She stopped responding to his messages. Leon looked up her profile and saw there was no activity.
The sudden ghosting made him feel like he’d just gotten off a carnival ride with vertigo. He taught his classes with indifference, strayed from the approved content.
One day Natali’s contact details were gone. This got him checking her profile and then her husband’s.
Rick Murino had posted, “It is with profound sadness that I announce the passing of my beautiful wife and dedicated mother to our son.”
With the text was an old photo of Natali with shorter hair, smiling distractedly. He couldn’t keep reading. The words blurred.
At Evelyn’s sister’s birthday party that day Leon took a glass of champagne and camped out in a corner chair. The buzz of birthday activity that played out around him provided a cover for his grief.
A double-layered cake was served. They sang Happy Birthday and Evelyn’s sister blew out the candles. Leon realized too late he hadn’t joined in. His wife was glaring at him. He mouthed “What?”
On the drive home she said, “Is there anything you want to talk to me about?”
She folded her arms and looked out the window.
The next day Evelyn cleaned out her drawers and closet. She was gone in the afternoon. She must have hired movers because some of the furniture went missing days later.
Also missing was a final conversation she never had.
His sense of time was the first thing to go. Then nothing in the house was where he remembered putting it. Heartburn seared his insides day and night.
At school in a Content Approval Meeting a student’s father swiped through the pages of Leon’s syllabus on a tablet stringing together a list of grievances. “That don’t even make no sense,” he said.
Leon abruptly walked over to the man and pushed his face into the table, popping off his brimmed hat.
The principal pulled Leon away and yelled, “For god’s sake, stop it!”
When it was over, the principal, pacing up and down his office, said, “There’s no way I can protect you from this. I’m sorry. You should talk to a lawyer.” Then after a long pause, “Have you been drinking?”
Leon drove past Natali’s row house. All the curtains were drawn. Her car was covered in snow and pine needles. It hadn’t been moved in a long time.
The holophone’s siren blasted through the car speakers. When Leon tapped the screen the BetterHealth® Dr Howard appeared in the passenger seat.
“Thank you Leon for the prompt answer.”
“Like I have a choice. What do I get? One grace re-dial for check-ins?”
“I have to start with that line, but yes, that’s correct. Can you take the privacy cap off the driver cam?” Leon flicked off the plastic cap.
The doctor”s eyes stared at Leon somewhere beyond him. The car hit a bump and the projection flickered. “Where are we headed?”
“Just a joyride.”
“The court gave me access to certain information. I know about Natali’s death.”
Leon bared his teeth. “You know what—”
“And you visited Natali’s memorial page dozens of times.”
“I don’t have to do this with you.”
“I would like to talk about her.”
“Well, that only makes one of us.”
“I doubt that’s true. The announcement of her passing preceded your outburst at the school. Which is the whole reason I’m here.”
Leon looked over at Dr Howard as if for the first time. The doctor pointed a finger at the road. Leon swerved back into his lane.
“What could you possibly understand about it?”
“What have you got to lose?”
“You’re a trick of the light,” Leon muttered.
“Not true, I’m embodied. Right now, I’m sitting here at Auxilium just like you’re riding in the car.”
“The short answer? In order to think like people do, I had to have physical expression. Like a body, a gender, a race, and so on. I need the experience, from blinking to shaking hands.”
“Why don’t they just bring you over to do it in person?”
“They tried that but it was too expensive. And our court-ordered patients took out their frustration on us. It led to a lot of headaches.”
“I could imagine that.”
The therapist smiled. “I said to one patient, this isn’t just property damage you know, you’re hurting me.”
The gymnasium was visible now. The mandate to stay off school premises did not include this campus. “Do you think this is a good idea?” Dr Howard asked.
Leon ignored him. He took the lesser-used rear entrance and cruised the parking lot until he spotted a black SUV. He backed into a space at the other side of the lot.
“What are we doing here?”
“Waiting for someone.”
They sat there a half-hour as parents and children climbed into minivans and left. A man and a seven-year-old boy walked out. The man was tall with a scarf around his neck and walked head down a few steps ahead of his son as if his coat weighed 200 pounds.
“Can you tell me what you see?”
“Not yet,” Leon said.
The boy, whose name was Ethan, watched a jet streak across the plum sky, not taking his eyes off it even as his father reached for his hand. His expression revealed no undue stress but the same fixated curiosity he’d shown in the photos Natali posted.
Ethan climbed in the back seat of the SUV and, shutting the door after him, his father’s face contorted in grief, as if touching the vehicle’s door pained him. A flash of private suffering, then it was gone.
“How long do our sessions last?” Leon asked.
“It varies. The program requires impromptu sessions when you’re in duress.”
Leon sighed. “Surely the old woman is missing you about now.”
“I think she’ll understand.”
Leon turned on the headlights and drove the car to the rear exit.
“Back home, then?”
Three miles from home Leon turned into a plaza without signaling and parked in front of a pub with dark-tinted windows. A middle-aged couple in leather jackets huddled together outside the door smoking.
“This establishment is a favorite spot on your GPS. And open until midnight, I believe.”
Dr Howard frowned. “I just want you to ask yourself why you’re going in there right now.”
Leon zipped up his jacket. “I’ll have time to think about it,” he said and went inside the pub.
At midnight, Leon came out, concentrating on his steps, and breathing heavy clouds. He got in the car and pressed the ignition. Nothing happened. He buried his hands in his pockets and shivered.
“You know it’s not going to start,” Dr Howard said, sitting in the passenger seat arms folded.
“How ‘bout that,” Leon said.
“I would’ve warned you, but you were in such a rush.”
Leon watched an old drunk piss behind the dumpster, tilting back and forth.
He turned to Dr Howard. “Do you know how she died?”
“The obituary didn’t give a cause.”
“Are you sure you don’t know?”
Leon sighed. “You could’ve made yourself useful, doctor.”
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea, and that’s probably my fault.”
Leon rested his head against the window. “I can’t believe I’ve been saddled with this. Like some babysitter from hell.”
“Can you tell me about your relationship with her? I can help if you let me.”
“You’re a bot, the culmination of bureaucracy and indifference. When the last person who gave a shit died, you and your kind bubbled up from some wellspring of techno-apathy—” he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, “—and now here we are.”
“I disagree. All over my makeup are the fingerprints of people who care and now I care.”
“AI doesn’t care.” Leon leaned back and closed his eyes. “You come from the desert of humanity. The collective loss of appetite to be interested in each other.”
“If that were true then why have we gotten so efficient at delivering help to those who need it most? Round the clock care, responsive, and in real time. Not to mention the huge drop in cases of neglect and abuse.”
Leon belched acid and coughed. He fished through the glove compartment, tossing the mess on the passenger seat.
“My patience is inexhaustible, Leon. I don’t burn out. My empathy can never run dry.”
“I’m talking to a machine.”
“Would it make a difference if I told you my algorithms function similar to brain synapses?”
“So then what’s the difference? Between me and a real-life therapist?”
Leon opened the car door. “I guess we’ve got to hoof it from here, doctor.”
“Let’s talk soon.”
The transmission cut except for the faint red lettering of BetterHealth® splayed across the passenger seat headrest.
Leon put the holophone in his pocket, pulled a hat over his head and stepped into the cold night on the three-mile walk home.
There was a pounding at the front door. Taking up the whole space of the doorway was Natali’s husband, his face drained of blood.
“My name is Rick,” he said. “I don’t know if she told you that.”
He reached for Leon’s shoulder, almost a paternal gesture, then grabbed at his shirt and pulled. “Do you understand what you took from us?”
Leon’s shirt tore. He sprang free, stumbling.
“I’m sorry,” Rick said, “I didn’t come here to do that.” He turned and left.
Leon locked the door.
Leon was on his eighth drink and when the call came he simply tossed the holophone on the floor. Dr Howard sprang out of the device like a beanstalk. Leon greeted him warmly. It was nice to have company.
“Well,” Dr Howard said, “you’ve had an interesting day.” Rick’s visit had been caught on the door cam.
Leon crunched an ice cube in his teeth. “You ever go back to conversations you had 10 years ago and realize the other person was right?
“Probably not in the way you mean,” Dr Howard said. “My advice might be proven wrong but it would be the best at the time based on the information available.”
They were quiet for a while. It was dark in the room save for car headlights on the curtains.
“Do you think we could turn a light on?” Dr Howard asked.
Leon got to his feet and staggered drunkenly to the lamp.
“He said I took something from them. What do you think he meant?”
“What do you think? Are you afraid she harmed herself?”
“Did she talk about doing something like that?”
“No. Never.” Leon lay down on the couch.
“Where did Evelyn go?”
“Moved in with a friend.”
“How long ago?”
“Couple of months. Not even.”
“Are you two in contact?”
Leon shook his head and closed his eyes. Dr Howard watched him for a few minutes and disconnected the call.
Leon turned onto the road leading to the swimming hole. The holophone rang as he knew it would.
“Thank you for the prompt answer, Leon.”
“Turns out if the car is already started the system can’t shut it down,” Leon chuckled, lifting the beer can from between his legs as he jerked the car around a pothole.
“Leon, this is terrible idea. I need to call this in.”
Leon took a long haul off his beer. “I was thinking if I could go back to the ennui without the grief, I’d do it,” he said. “It’s the grief I find unbearable.”
“I’ve avoided telling you this, but your time with Natali was irresponsible and unsustainable. It wasn’t even real in the way life is supposed to be.”
“Acting like kids, probably drunk the whole time.”
“That’s just as real as the drudgery, the everdayness.”
“It was fleeting and it was an escape from reality.”
“I disagree, Dr Howard. I reached a new level during that time. So what if I was tipsy? What’s the difference?”
“You should’ve stuck with the ennui, Leon. We can fix ennui.”
“No, you just think you can.”
Leon reached for another beer. “Look, you’re here to tell me I have to care about all these things I don’t care about.” He looked at Dr Howard. “I don’t blame you, though. I want you to know that.”
He parked at the path to the swimming hole. “When I shut this car off, that’s it. There’s no starting it back up.”
“Where are we? Let’s talk about this.” The doors locked.
“Did you do that?” Leon killed the engine, pulled up the lock.
Leon was pleased that the moon was as bright as that night with Natali, but now the path to the swimming hole was icy and slippery. The bluish glow of snow outlined the contours of the lagoon and the island.
Leon held his breath and listened to the low groan of hardening ice. Slow moving fissures struck out like lines of marble across the frozen water. “You hear that?” Leon asked.
“Are we at a lake?” Dr Howard asked. “I want you to know I’ve called in the emergency services.”
“I understand. They’ll take a while to get here. We need to make it to that island.”
“Is the ice thick enough?”
“I think so.” Leon stepped onto the ice. It held his weight. So far so good.
“Leon, wait—” Dr Howard said. “Natali had cancer. I’m not supposed to know this. They have firewalls between the databases. Auxilium will probably pull me over this. But you have to know you didn’t cause her death. You cannot go trekking out onto a half-frozen lake for—what, exactly? Can we get off the ice now?”
“I took from them the little time she had left. I understand now,” Leon said. The ice groaned underneath his feet.
“That’s not squarely on you.”
“How did Evelyn find out?”
“Let’s go back—”
Leon took another step. Underneath his foot a bubble flattened and squirmed in the ice. “How did she find out?”
“Natali was Evelyn’s charge in the hospital. She died under your wife’s care.”
“Evelyn wanted to talk to me about her,” Leon said. “It must have been poison for her. For both of them.”
It was snowing again. Or maybe the wind was blowing it around.
“Natali had this crackpot theory, I liked it though. She said you could take certain risks, you know, test the fates to see if they give you permission.”
“I don’t understand—”
“Like you not really being here to stop me. See? I passed the first test. And now we’re going to find the necklace Natali threw away.”
“I’m hearing on the scanner the police have found your car. Let’s go meet them.”
Another step. “I’m turning you off, Dr Howard.”
He took another step.
I’ve been writing since childhood. Something I ask myself a lot is if I’d known then how long it would take to learn how to write, would I have kept going? I’d like to think so. I have a broke-down novel on blocks that I strip for parts and another novel with some potential. My writing has been published in Litro Magazine, Red Fez, Writ. I make a living writing for a government contractor.