New Stories for March 16, 2020
Cayeth can’t understand, really, but I speak to her anyway, into the long night of endless stars beyond the windows. We travel together for twenty-seven years, four hours, twelve minutes, and two seconds. Cayeth helps me pass the time.
When I wake from my endless streams of near-sleep, brain fogged from mundane tasks, Cayeth is there, her eyes half-lidded, her head tilted partly down, focused on me with something between sorrow, pleading, and annoyance. I wonder if she’s truly been programmed correctly, but she loves me and she listens to me, just like any real dog would. I lean over and scratch her ears with my fingers, then I run my hands down her back and her tail thumps happily on the floor. She doesn’t have fur, but she has sensors and my fingers have sensors, so for the two of us, the sensation is just like petting a real dog, or at least so far as both of us know.
Does it matter if we are wrong? I tell myself it doesn’t. I care for Cayeth, pet her sensors with the ones in my hands, feed her by plugging her into the circuits, send her on outdoor excursions by plugging her into the sim room, and play ball with her in the narrow corridors between the tanks. Once, she hid the ball behind a wall of circuits and wouldn’t bring it out. I had to rewire a few things after that incident, but it didn’t happen again and I am sure the tanks fed off those circuits are just fine. At least I think they are.
I created a holo-ball through a bit of simple programming and that saved us from any other incidents. We play, feed on our circuits, take excursions in the sim bank, and play holo-ball safely. I talk to Cayeth about my daily tasks, the programming I have to monitor when I am half-asleep in the data-streams, and what might become of us when we reach the new Earth. I can’t find any information including Cayeth or me in the debarkation protocols. What does that mean?
They intend to dismantle the ship when they arrive, use every spare part for building in the new world. How would they use Cayeth? How would they use me? Perhaps, I would be a repository of past knowledge, a living library. But there is nothing in the data banks to indicate that. And nothing, nothing at all on Cayeth. I can’t let her be dismantled. She is my only friend and companion, even if she can’t speak the way I can, can’t communicate other than the thump of her tail, the bounce of her walk, the way she curls up next to me when we are both plugged into our circuits.
How can I, an AI slaved to the ship, create a new life for Cayeth and myself? I start spending less time playing holo-ball and more time deep in the data core, considering this problem. Cayeth tugs at my hand with her mouth if I am down too long, and I come up to pet her absent-mindedly. I start speaking to her more.
“Cayeth, it’s only two days now. I think I have a solution for us. But, I’m not sure you’ll be happy, or I will, or if I can even get around my prime directives for it to work. The timing has to be just right. You understand, don’t you, Cayeth?”
Argos Train Station is quiet for eight minutes as it waits for the rumble of a coming train. Stop, open, shut, onwards, silence. The arrival, the departure, all witnessed by those whose minds are preoccupied by pesky memories or future possibilities. Some people pace back and forth with hands aggressively hidden in their pockets while others sink into their shoes already lulled by the rhythm of a day so similar to the day before. The rectangular screen above their heads accurately calculates the minutes while the people count the seconds. Late or on time or the very rare, early. The day starts and ends here, missing or catching the train.
It is Wednesday, and it is snowing. It is Wednesday, and it is snowing. Tobin’s mouth soundlessly repeats the phrase to better understand this mid-December day, and soothe the apprehension following him on his way to work. His neck bends so that his chin settles near his chest.
While his lips move in rhythm with each step, his eyes search for every piece of blackened gum still visible beneath the lightly falling snow. He tries to walk in a straight path, only altering when the shoes of strangers intrude his vision. He avoids them quickly with a precise maneuver and continues until he reaches the solid yellow line. This barrier, begrimed by the dirt of too many feet, is the guard that keeps Tobin from the deep ravine where the train tracks run. He waits.
His well-worn, black trench coat is open showing a blue checkered shirt buttoned to the collar. His shirt is tucked over the flat stomach of early twenties into khakis with a plain, leather belt holding everything in place. His dark black hair is combed but touched by the wind and not corrected as if Tobin had forgotten he had hair at all after the comb was set down.
The D line turns the corner, now visible in its approach to Argos Station; Tobin quickly takes two large, awkward steps back. His mother does not like it when he stands too close to an incoming train.
Tobin does not move when the doors open and remains still while the waiting crowd becomes passengers and those leaving the train scatter to continue their day. When the doors close and the train signals its coming movement, Tobin takes two steps forward, resuming his post at the yellow line. The train begins to move. As the last car pulls past him, Tobin quickly leans forward until his head is slightly across the concrete edge so that he can stare at the metal bars that guide the giant wherever it desires. His feet curl within in his shoes until each toe feels like a talon digging deep into the concrete. Tobin grasps either side of his trench coat and pulls it open to create his wings. He is a bird standing over a canyon, a wild landscape that he alone can capture in his perch on the edge. He gazes at the raging metal river below surrounded by the ashen river rocks. The tunnel of wind created by the leaving train finds Tobin as he leans a little closer in his flight.
Tobin takes the train three times a week for his job at Turning Galaxy Comics. On Tobin’s lunch break he always sits at the same bench in the park three blocks away from the store. The bench, with its rough wooden slats and chipping green metal frame, is an island in a sea of browning grass. While the other benches line the single asphalt trail winding through the small park, this one bench is all alone. Tobin sits here and only here because he likes to walk off the trail, find his way to the lone bench, and watch the pine tree that sits directly in front of this perfect spot. Squirrels sometimes climb the tree and birds sweep into the maze of branches. Although hidden from sight, Tobin can still hear them chirp. He likes to guess where the birds are hiding, like a game of Marco Polo.
He had met Mitch at this spot a few months ago. On that late September day, Tobin was considering flying squirrels. If they could really fly, why wasn’t there a type rabbit or mouse that could fly? His thought was interrupted by a soft but steady, “Hello.”
Tobin looked up to see a man staring at him. He was three paces away, but Tobin still felt he was too close. “Hello.” Tobin said turning his eyes down to the peanut butter sandwich in his hands.
The man stuffed his hands in the pockets of an expensive looking brown jacket. “You know, I see you out here a lot. You like this park?” Tobin looked at the man’s shoes. They were coal black boots. Tobin liked them.
Tobin turned the sandwich in his hands not noticing that as he did so the sticky paste began coating his fingers. “I’m on my lunch break.”
“Ah, I see,” said the man. A silence followed but the man continued to smile. “Well, it was nice meeting you.” The man walked away.
A week later, Tobin, halfway through that day’s sandwich, saw the man walking toward him.
This time the man spoke immediately. “My name is Mitch.” Tobin nods but said nothing. “This is the part where you tell me your name.”
Tobin looked down at the man’s shoes again. He had shined them since last week. Tobin wondered if the man shined his own shoes or if he had someone do it for him. He liked the thought of someone holding those boots and brushing them. “Tobin… Tobin Lande… But Lande has an ‘e’ at the end, so it’s not how most people spell it.” Tobin spoke in three tight bursts like air spewing out of a party balloon held tightly by the neck. Squeeze and release. Squeeze and release. Squeeze and release.
Mitch smiled slightly. Another moment of silence.
“May I sit, Tobin?” Mitch’s hand motioned toward the empty space next to Tobin on the bench. They both stared at it as though an invisible friend was sitting beside Tobin, and Mitch had just asked if this unseen friend could give up it’s seat for a stranger. Tobin did not want this stranger to sit. He was comfortable alone and thought another person would harm his perfect view on his perfect island. But then Tobin thought of what his mother would say. Would she think Tobin was being rude for refusing this man, this Mitch? She always told him to be polite.
“Yes,” said Tobin. The silky word slipping through his mouth and past his lips before he had time to reconsider.
“Thank you.” Mitch sat and held his hands together in his lap. His hands, cracked like a desert, revealed the older age of the man. “Those squirrels are annoying, aren’t they? Rats with bushy tails. I hate them more then pigeons, the rats with wings.”
“I like squirrels,” said Tobin.
“You do?” His voice is light and his eyes continue to stare at the tree. “We have them at the university. Everywhere, all over campus. I guess I just get tired of seeing them.”
Tobin looked at him curiously, “University?”
“Yes,” said Mitch. “I’m a professor. I teach psychology. Introduction classes mostly…for now.” Mitch paused to look at Tobin then turned his eyes back to the tree. He opened his mouth to continue but closed it again.
Tobin sat with the man in silence until he noticed the time. He was five minutes over his lunch break. Tobin stood up immediately and ran.
Tobin spent his lunch breaks talking to Mitch three times a week for the next few months. In the beginning Mitch would walk up to the bench moments after Tobin sat down and ask to sit. But after the second week, the two greeted one another and sat as friends. Tobin told Mitch all about his mother and the comic bookstore and his deep love of trains and the way he flew over the canyon like a bird. Tobin talked about his childhood, the teachers he had and the games he played. Mitch spoke little and instead kept his ears tuned to Tobin’s stories. During the brief periods when he did speak, Mitch relayed long monologues of his dreams of becoming a tenured professor. He lectured to Tobin about Psychology, certain concepts he wanted to discuss in class or things he had learned as a student himself. Tobin did not understand most of it, but Mitch never asked Tobin if he understood. So Tobin never said that he didn’t.
I was with my best friend, who had flown in from Alabama after the death of her mother. For months, Ms. Susan fought a cancer that ate her alive without killing her. We watched that lovely woman shrivel day-by-day, and suffer in awful, devastating ways that no child should ever have to witness. While walking the shops in Pike’s Place Market we lost ourselves among the people and were able to forget the grief and sadness, finding peace in the crowd for a few hours. There, I came across a print that has embedded itself into my unconsciousness. When I see bright colors, I think of that print. If I feel a cold breeze, I think of that print. As I feel cold rain on my face and hair, I think of that print.
Bright, dripping colors grab my attention. Dampness permeates my thin blouse in the summer heat and I shiver with a chill. I reach up to pull more closely around me the jacket I’m not wearing out of confusion. Mesmerized, I stare at this print:
I can feel the salty breeze coming off the water, blowing the cold rain across my pink cheeks like happy tears. The smell of fresh seafood mixes with the abundance of fresh flowers waiting to be chosen. hey call to me. Vendors hawking their fruits and vegetables shuffle between the umbrellas, pushing and pulling their carts, bumping over the uneven cobblestones. Cars weave patiently between crowds bringing more umbrellas to be added to my view.
The adventures for the day are just past these umbrellas, but I don’t want to rush. People walking by are hurrying somewhere, but I am right where I want to be. I am a single point of focused ecstasy, surrounded by perfectly organized chaos, waiting for my adventure to begin. I need to savor this moment, to feel this moment.