By Holly Schofield
I’m not a complainer, not me. I roll with the punches. I’ll be just another dead trash collector in about ten minutes but, hey, that’s okay. My son won’t die and, here’s a bonus, my life insurance policy will pay out.
Unless they consider it suicide.
Here we are, hugging in the middle of my living room, me in my robo-assist, my fists locked behind Ricky’s head, up high, like a boxer’s. Ricky, that’s my son, he’s pinned right against my chest.
I can’t see much now, things are blurry; must be sweat that’s in my eyes. Maybe that’ll save me ’cause it’ll short out the servos sooner or later. That was a joke. I’m hanging tough. By the way, guys, before you do anything down at the cop shop with this voice record, edit out all the emotional crap Ricky and I said earlier at the beginning, like right when it started recording, okay? Kinda embarrassing.
Lemme tell you about the assists. Us union guys aren’t issued fancy ones like the reality stars get—ours don’t have hardly any medi-sensors or monitors or nothing—only basics, like the LifeSwitch. And they don’t come with no webcams, just a remote link and a voice recorder in the sleeve controls. You velcro a battery pack at the top of your ass and then jam your feet in the boots and ease the assist on like a really, really stiff coverall. You can’t even see the eight servo motors or the carbon fiber rods under the plastic. The memory foam grabs your calves and thighs and arms, and you hit the ‘On’ button and, uber-quick, it’s slaved to your movements. In, like, thirty seconds you’re up and running.
On a good day.
Since the city cut back the maintenance budget, there’s all sorts of glitches with the assists. Mine’s all battered and scratched and the shoulder hatch is just duct-taped on.
Ricky, he’s a good son, twenty-eight years old and smart as a chip, he says I should tell management that the assists are a bit wacked. What he don’t know is, and I’m being real frank here since it don’t matter no more, I tinkered with my assist last week, so I’d be setting myself up if I asked them to run diagnostics on it after that. See, there’s one stop on my route, got these goddamn decorative rocks right in front, I gotta heave the trash cans up and over each friggin’ time, makes the bursitis in my shoulder kick up something terrible. So I ramped up the assist, just a touch, and that meant I had to fiddle with the limit control, tweak the processors a bit, you know? Guys my age got hardware skills, not like today’s kids that can’t tell firmware from their underwear. Still, now I wish I hadn’t done that. Goddamn, do I wish it.
Anyway, I know you cops are busy guys. So I’ll get to the point.
First, though, I need to tell you just a bit more about the Lifeswitch so things make more sense. Like, take Johnno last month: his lungs couldn’t hack it no more and the asthma meds were too friggin’ expensive but what was he gonna do? Twenty-two years he’s been chucking trash cans on the west end route. Nobody’s gonna hire him for anything else, not in this Slump. Don’t know what the country’s coming to. Anyway, Johnno got to the point where heaving a full can into the truck made him cough up a lung for a good three minutes, even with his assist cranked up to max. Poitr, the depot tech, he told me how it went down that day. Johnno was finishing up his route when Poitr’s screens blared so loud the depot practically shook. That’s what happens when a LifeSwitch goes off. It’s a union requirement, see? Been too many cases where a can jockey got hurt on the job and no one knew. Johnno took his last breath and his assist triggered the alarm. The medics were there in minutes but Johnno was splayed out in the lane, dead, with a full trash can spilled out all over him. They had to cut the assist in pieces to get it off. We had a nice little memorial for him in the coffee room, and the union even paid for donuts.
Today, I wore my assist home with me. Yeah, I know, against union rules, sure, but Ricky wanted me to move his old piano from my basement here at the farm to his new apartment. It’s an upright, one of those old-school pianos that weigh more than a garbage truck. I’d lowered it into the basement the day we moved to the farm, Mandy and me. Ricky was just a twinkle in our eye. Mandy’d had all these ambitions for the kid and he hadn’t even seen the light of day yet. I couldn’t afford much so I’d got this old piano out of the town dump. That was back when people just trashed stuff. None of this 3-D printer recycling nonsense where you gotta sort the trash components so goddamn carefully these days. So what I did, I wrapped a wire cable around the piano with Mandy dancing around, chattering like she did, and her stuffing a blanket at the edges so it wouldn’t scratch the finish. Then I backed my old Suburban up slowly over the front lawn—you shoulda heard that woman of mine yelling about her flowerbeds—and hitched it to the other end of the cable. I put my shoulder to the piano, those were the days—before this bursitis—and that wooden beast slid down the first step and hung there while the cable went zing and tightened up. Then I backed the Suburban slowly toward the house. The piano slid the rest of the way down the stairs, easy as pi. Those were the days. I’d give anything for Mandy to still be alive and yelling at me about something. The breast cancer cure came along just five years too late, ya know, or she would be here in the living room right now, yapping away, getting us out of this mess.
Goddamn, sweat or something is running in my eyes again. Wish I could wipe them.
He’s a good kid, Ricky, but not tall and not muscle-bound, if you know what I mean. He’s got his dad for that stuff. So when he said he wanted the piano at his apartment, I was happy to help. But my shoulder’s been hurting all week. Bursitis is hell. Not complaining, mind, just telling you why I wore the assist home from work. I don’t want the blame put on anyone else but me, see?
What I can’t figure is—let me yap a bit, guys, I got time—we got that bunch of cancer cures now, right? Well, for the common types. We got that colony on the moon, right? Well, the Chinese do. And we fixed AIDS good. Well, not counting AIDS 2.0, but, at least, there’s progress, right, even in this crappy economy. So why haven’t they fixed diabetes yet? Like, come on. Ricky’s life has been a tough one, all because of the Big D. Giving himself insulin jets every few hours, 24/7, pain in the ass and pricey. Regular joes, like Ricky and me, we can’t afford those new patches they got now. And he needs sugary snacks even oftener than the jets, or it’s coma-time. Missed out going on friends’ camping trips and a school trip to Disneyland when he was a kid. I was too goddamn nervous to let him out of my sight that long. You know us single parents, always a little twitchy.
Ricky’s such a good kid. I mean, to be born right when the Slump took down the economy, that’s rough. Him choosing music teacher as his profession, that’s damn smart. Not gonna get obsolete any time soon. Let’s see a bot teach piano like a human does, eh? Those upscale parents on the west side are always gonna want the status of a real live teacher watching their kids plink out notes on a keyboard.
Anyhow, Ricky met me at home today. Well, you know that, ’cause you’ll have found our bodies in the living room by now. At least I hope someone finds ’em before too long. The long days of the summer, that heat we wait for all year, it isn’t always a good thing, know what I mean? We were gonna move that piano. I’d come in the back door through the mudroom, letting the assist help me up the back steps. Steps are hard on the knees with the weight of the assist, eh. Ricky walked in the front door about ten seconds later, beaming from ear to ear. Staggering a bit, hadn’t had time to eat for a few hours but pushing through it. Tough, like his dad. His big news, he couldn’t wait to tell me, was he got himself a fancy job teaching music up at the university. That’s my boy! He was all dressed up in a fancy suit. Guess that’s why he didn’t have any insulin jets handy—must’ve left them in his other pants or something.
I was so proud, I gave him a big hard hug and that’s when it happened. The assist jammed. Stuck us both in my living room holding Ricky like a piece of wood in a vise. My wrist controls were right there, centimeters from my nose but I couldn’t reach them. Ricky of course never wore a phone or nothin’, said it interfered with the music nodes he sometimes patched on his skull. That boy was always playing his tunes.
“Ricky, see if you can hit the controls on my wrist,” I’d said.
He didn’t say nothing, which, at the time, I thought was weird. Anyhow, he sucked in a long breath and managed to twist an arm up and around my wrist. Then he let his arm fall, just dropped it like a stone. Well, he’d hit Connect all right, as well as Record. Connect started playing some service message about some goddamn maintenance routine they were running down at the depot. Still no big deal, I thought, Poitr or someone’ll answer soon. At least, they’d miss me on tomorrow’s shift or a neighbor might stop in. Mind you, the nearest neighbor is a good three klicks away. We liked the peace and quiet out here in the country, Mandy and I.
“Ricky,” I said next. “Son, see if you can wiggle out of here and get some help. Maybe if you twist a bit in my arms, you might lose some skin or dislocate your shoulder but I bet you can slide out.”
“Yeah . . . ,” he said all long and drawn-out like and then he sagged down in my arms. Sugar-coma, dammit.
I yelled and prodded but he was too far gone. The service message played over and over.
So here we are. Thanks for listening to me spill all this crap, guys. I got another favor to ask, too.
I know you cops have reports to make and forms to fill out, but if you could keep quiet about how things happened here—about what, God help me, I’m going to do next. Keep it from Ricky, I’m askin’ you. If you could do that, it would be a fine thing. I don’t want the boy spending the rest of his life having the guilts ’cause dear ol’ Dad did this for him, you know?
Anyhow, I think I can bypass some stuff, mash two little contacts together, and get the shoulder motor working. I did it before in the shop when I ramped things up. Just the one shoulder will do it. So far, I’ve scraped off the duct tape and now I’ve got a couple of fingers inside the shoulder hatch. So, if I can connect up that servo to trigger a rotating action, see, my arm rises up, my fist pivots toward my head, my neck snaps, and that’ll set off the LifeSwitch and call up you guys and the medics. Ricky will be saved and, hey, I gotta save my boy, no matter what. I’m not grumbling about it, just saying it so you cops can figure out stuff when you get here.
No, I’m not complaining . . . I’m just, you know, rolling with the punches.
About the Author
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction, AE, Unlikely Story, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world. For more of her work, see .
About the Narrator
Robert A. K. Gonyo is a theatre director, actor, podcaster, sound designer, voiceover artist, musician, and tour-guide residing in Queens, NY. He is the producer of Go See a Show!, New York City’s independent theatre podcast (goseeashowpodcast.com), as well as the producer of Apparitions, a podcast of new radio horror plays.