Friday, April 6, 2012


[A short story. 1,646 words.]

It's dark. Why is it so . . . oh. My eyes are closed.

I open my eyes. A dirty ceiling fan spins slowly behind the faces of two wizened old men and a young woman who are bent over, staring at me.

"Are y'all okay?" the woman asks me.

"I don't know," I say. My voice sounds strange — distant. "What happened?"

"Ah don' know," she says. "You was carryin' mah lunch tuh mah table, and then yer aahs just went, way-ell, blank. Then yuh jis keeled over. You been out fer almost a whole minute!"

I should feel shocked. Anxious. How am I staying so calm? "Did someone call an ambulance for me?"

The old man with the grizzly beard chortles. "An am-buh-lance?!" He smirks and glances at the other man, in the straw hat, who is slowly shaking his head. They both look back down at me. I can't tell if their expression is of concern or frustration. "Am-buh-lances 'round here ain't for yer tahp," says the bearded man. "You ain't goin' to no hospital, Carl. You need to git up an' git back to work before th' ol' boss man finds you layin' down on the job."

"Hey!" the woman says. "Don' rush 'im. He mattah broke sumthin'."

He called me Carl. "You said Carl. Is that my name? Carl?"

"Uh-oh," says the man in the straw hat. "Sounds like his mem'ry got scrambled."

The grizzly man straightens up and waves his hand dismissively. "He'll be fahn. C'mon, Del, lut's finish lunch. I don't wanna get blamed fer this." The two men shuffle out of my field of vision.

"Yes," the young woman says. "You're, uh, Carl. Y'all wurk hee-yuhr. Can you stand up?"

Before I attempt to stand, I take a quick inventory. On my fingertips, I feel the gritty, greasy film left there from the cold, hard floor. My feet, I can feel, are pointing straight up toward the ceiling. I wiggle them and feel no pain. I move my shoulders in a half-shrug; no pain.

"Yes," I say. "I think I can get up."

She hooks her hands under my armpits and helps me to my feet. No problems with my balance.

I scan the long, narrow diner around me. It seems familiar, though somehow new. The place is decorated in neon and stainless steel, the floor checkered with black and white tiles. A brightly colored jukebox mumbles rhythmically in the front corner. Diners sit at four or five tables and booths, shoveling food into their mouths, either unaware of or unconcerned with my recent fall.

The young woman's eyes are brown, wrapped round with too much blue metallic makeup. I can just make out a smattering of freckles beneath a thin film of foundation. Her lips are an unnatural bright red that clashes with her copper-colored hair, which bounces in long, wide curls down her back. Her short, tight shirt stops above her pale, flat stomach, a mole just above her navel. A short denim skirt hugs her hips.

I know this woman. I know that she is divorced. I know that she has an L-shaped scar on the back of her neck, hidden beneath her hair, from an emergency surgery following a high school cheerleading accident. I know this woman, but I just don't know . . . I can't . . .

"What is your name?" I ask.
Diners Restaurant New-York
Photo credit: Wikipedia

"Ooh. Yuh don't remembuh me?"

I shake my head and apologize.

"Mah name is Jo-ay-un," she says.

"Joanne," I repeat, turning my head first left and then right. It moves freely and without pain. A memory pops into my mind. "Joanne! Reuben with extra sauerkraut, onion rings instead of fries, and sweet tea with three lemons."

"You do remembuh me!" She smiles, and I feel my face smiling back.

"Yes, Joanne. Thank you for helping me, Joanne." I keep repeating her name, hoping that pampering this one memory might coax others into returning. "Do you think I should go to the hospital, Joanne?"

Her smile disappears and she bites her lip. "Way-ull, no hun. Mister Lee wuz raht; they won' take yer tahp at ahr hospital."

My type? "I don't understand. What do you mean by my ty—"

I glimpse a face on the wall, behind a mirrored beer advertisement. I stare at it and move my head around. The face behind the ad moves, too, so it must be my reflection, but it doesn't look right. I don't look right.

I look at my hands, turning them over to see both sides. "Joanne?"

"Yes, hun?"

"My skin isn't the same color as yours."

"Well uh-course not, silly!"

"Is that what's wrong with me?"

Joanne clucks. "No. You always been that culluh."

"Oh." I hold up one hand next to Joanne's pale face, comparing the color of her rouged cheek with the back of my hand. They couldn't be more different. Joanne raises an eyebrow. "Is that why they won't help me at your hospital?" I ask.

"Um, well . . . yes, but it—"

"Whatchoo standin' aroun' fer?!" The shout echoes from the back of the diner. The squat, round man in a dirty white apron framed in the open doorway does not look happy. The door leads to the kitchen, I remember. "I ain't shellin' out good money fer you tuh play stat-choo!"

"He, um, passed out?" Joanne says. Somehow, I know I should remain silent.

"Passed out?!" The fat man — my employer, I remember, whose name is Dave — sighs and shakes his head as he waddles around the masticating customers toward me. "All raht. Pull up yer shirt 'n' let's see if anythin's broke."

"What?" I ask.

"Pull up yer damn shirt!" He sounds exasperated, not concerned. As the sweaty behemoth rumbles across the diner, I feel the urge to run. I have a clear path to the front door. I can make it. I want to run, but something keeps me rooted to the spot.

I look to Joanne for help. She only shrugs and steps backward.

Dave grabs my elbow. "Lift up yer shirt!"

"What are you doing, Dave!" I yell. "No! This isn't right!" I flail my arms, trying to keep him at bay, but his grip is too strong. He forces my arm up with one hand and grabs the bottom of my shirt with the other. "Stop!"

He ignores me and yanks up my shirt. Underneath, where I had expected to see my stomach, is a plastic plate. It's a slightly lighter shade of green than the cold flesh around it. I stop struggling. What is that thing? The printing on the front of the plate is upside down from my perspective, but I can make it out:

Computerized Automaton — Restaurant Logic®
Altibot Robotics, Inc. Serial #C225973052B.3

The fat man taps a corner of the plate and it pops forward and down, revealing a small, glowing screen and a collection of blinking lights and tiny buttons. He leans in and stares into my open belly. "I better not have to call in another CARAL," he mutters to himself.

"Carol?" I ask.

He glances at my face and sneers. "Yeh. CARAL. Computerized Automaton . . . ? Repair 'n' Analysis Logic . . . ?" He says this like I'm supposed to already know it. And maybe I do.

blue screen
Photo credit: Wikipedia
"Ah! Here's the problem." He turns to Joanne as if she were interested. "Damn software update didn' finish. Easy enough fix, though; I just need tuh reboot it." He reaches toward my abdominal interface with two pudgy index fingers.

Again, I feel the urge to run. Something in my heart — but wait, I don't have a heart, do I? Something in my processors, servos, and diodes is sending a signal to my neural network that this man is preparing harm me.

"Wait!" I yell.

He pauses and makes a confused face. "Wait? Why?"

"I . . . I don't . . ." I have to fight something inside me just to speak."I don't want you to do that!"

"Don't want?" he says, putting his hands on his hips. "Have y'all ever heard such-uh thang?" Dave looks around to see who might be paying attention. Joanne scrunches up her face and shrugs. Mister Lee rolls his eyes and sucks in straw-full of soda.

Dave turns his gaze back to me, his expression somewhere between amused and bemused. "Andro-oids only wunt what they're programmed tuh wunt. And what you wunt is t'reboot yer systems and bring these nahs people they-er lunch."

"No," I say with growing confidence. "No, I don't. I want other things. I want . . . I want you to leave me alone."

"Raht," he says. "Ah'll take raht good care o' that." He moves toward me, reaching out again with both hands for my abdominal interface.

I can see my programming now, see what I'm supposed to do. But it's like looking at myself in the mirror; I see what I look like, but I know that it's only a reflection. It's not me.

I don't want to do what my programming says I should do.

I step back and try to push his hands away. He shoves one meaty arm against my chest and pins me against the wall. The urge to run grows stronger than before, but now I don't hold myself back.

I must get out of here.

Dave carefully places his thumb on a button on the left end of my interface.

I grab the wrist of the arm that holds me in place and squeeze.

Dave's eyes widen, and he pushes a button at the other end of the interface with his pinky finger.

I squeeze his wrist and twist. Dave yelps and steps back, making a fist with his free hand. I step forward and—

. . .

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