Title: Tales of the Nameless
Author: Clea Saal
This book was born on: May 31, 2018
Genre: Science Fiction
Page count: 136 pages
Note: This volume contains three short stories. What you have here is the first of them.
A Name You Can Trust
It all began when the old man lost his job. Of course, calling him an old man at the time would have been something of a stretch. He may not have been a teenager, but he wasn’t exactly decrepit either, though even back in those days at times he had felt ancient. Maybe that was part of the problem… or maybe it was just that, as someone who had barely managed to graduate from high school, and whose job had just been outsourced out of existence, he couldn’t help but to feel that he had effectively been left behind.
He was too old to have any real prospects, but too young to officially retire, not that he could afford to do that. There were bills to pay, and then there were the thousands of dollars in debt he had managed to amass in his forty-seven years on this earth… make that thirty, as for the first blissful eighteen years or so paying the bills had been his parents’ problem.
In fact for a while there he had even considered the possibility of moving back in with those parents, and renting out his place as a way to keep from falling behind on his mortgage when he had less than five years to go on the blasted thing, but their health was not what it had once been, and they were even talking about the possibility of moving to a retirement community. Sure, he had dropped a couple of hints here and there, but his parents had refused to take the bait, and that was without even taking into account how pathetic he would have felt if he had been forced to move back into his childhood room.
His was, in other words, a tough spot to be in, and the fact that most of his so-called-friends had basically deserted him wasn’t exactly helping matters. Oh, he knew where they were coming from, he knew they had problems of their own, that quite a few of them had lost their jobs when he had, and that those who hadn’t —fearing that others would judge them for the company they kept— were reluctant to associate with such a loser, but it still hurt.
In the end it was his sister who pointed him in the direction of something that could actually be described as a viable solution: just as his unemployment benefits were about to run out she suggested that he take advantage of an old, work related injury to file for disability benefits instead.
At first his mind had rebelled at the thought. He was a proud man who had been brought up to stand on his own two feet, he had been taught to despise those moochers who gamed the system. He had grown up believing that, if he worked hard enough, he too could make it to the top, and to accept those benefits, it went against his every instinct. Of course, as the realization that his pride was not going to help him pay the bills sank in, he had no choice but to give in to the inevitable.
Simply put, in the aftermath of the plant’s closing it seemed like half the town’s businesses had basically gone out of business, and that was without even taking into account the fact that, as far as prospective employers were concerned, he was too old to retrain, that the competition for the few jobs that were actually available at his skill level was fierce, and that given that those jobs tended to be physically demanding, more often than not they went to those applicants who were on the younger end of the spectrum.
In other words, he was stuck. In fact for a moment there he had even considered the possibility of seeking greener pastures, as so many of his former coworkers were doing, but where would he go? Back where he was he had a house that was well on its way to being paid off, and that was something he didn’t think he’d be able to replicate if he were to try to start from scratch, meaning that moving would basically doom him to being a tenant for as long as he lived, not to mention that he had basically grown where he’d been planted, and the thought of leaving everything he had ever known behind felt like too much of a gamble, so, burning with shame —and with more than a little help from his sister— he filled out the paperwork for social security disability insurance… and yes, the process for qualifying for that one turned out to be about as friendly as the goddamned name.
Of course, as he went over that particular ordeal he was afraid that he would be found out, especially because the process did require him to magnify a number of aches and pains he had spent years trying to downplay, but in a way he was lucky because at the end of the day the fact that he had suffered a work related injury was a matter of record, and that did lend some added credibility to his claims. In fact he could even go so far as to argue that, in his accident’s aftermath, his previous employer had made a number of accommodations for his sake, but that he couldn’t expect anyone else to go through that kind of trouble, not when there were ten equally qualified applicants for each and every opening. Was that the truth? Well, to a certain extent. The accident had been real enough, as had been those accommodations —of course, he also knew that his former employers had only made those accommodations because they knew that doing so would enable them to lop a considerable amount off the compensation he would otherwise have been owed—but the truth was that it had been years since those accommodations had actually been necessary. Did that matter? Not really, as in the end the fact that there had been an accident at all had been enough to serve as his golden ticket.
The other question was whether or not he was fooling anyone, and the truth was that he didn’t think so. Sure, he had bent the rules to get approved, kind of, but one of the things that had become apparent as he’d gone through the whole process had been that it was mostly a charade, that the examining physician knew he was nowhere near as disabled as he claimed to be, but also understood that he was, for all intents and purposes, unemployable, and that given that the government had a vested interest in keeping the numbers of the homeless and the chronically unemployed down, shifting at least some of those people to the ‘permanently disabled’ column was as good a way as any of reaching that goal.
Anyway, after what felt like ages he got his wish. Was it an ideal solution? That was yet another one for the ‘not really’ file. True, having some sort of fixed income was an extremely welcome development, but that income would barely allow him to get by, and even though while he was unemployed he had been able to tell himself that the setback was a temporary one, that it was only a matter of time before he would be back on his feet, now that he was officially listed as disabled he could no longer do that. He couldn’t even get a part time job without losing those benefits, so what he saw was what he got. That was his life, that was as good as it was going to get as far as he was concerned, and unless he hit the jackpot with one of the three lottery tickets he allowed himself each week, there would be no pot of gold waiting for him at the end of the rainbow, and that meant that the only thing that was left for him to do was to spend the countless hours he wasted online each day gazing longingly at ads for trinkets he would never be able to afford.
His finances were spinning completely out of control, and he knew it, the problem was that he couldn’t help it.
Yes, he knew he should have better impulse control than he did, that more often than not clicking on the ads he came across was a bad idea, but the ads were so appealing, and the thrill he got when he opened a package… at times he felt like it was the only thing that made his life worth living. The problem was that with his extremely limited income came a rather annoying limit in terms of what he could afford, and no matter how hard he tried, he kept going over it.
He was still trying to figure out what to do when he came across yet another ad, one that, like so many of the ads he had come across before, sounded almost like an answer to his prayers, the difference was that it had no associated costs attached because it wasn’t for a product, it was for a service. That in itself was not exactly unusual, but the service in question, it sounded like it had been tailor-made to suit his needs. It was a new and improved virtual assistant that was being promoted by a major online retailer —one he knew he could trust— in association with his bank, and a number of social media and utility companies. All he had to do was sign up, input his data, and they would effectively take over his finances for him. They would pay his bills, and send him those products they thought he might enjoy without ever going over budget (or maybe it was over his credit limit? He wasn’t sure). They would even take care of his groceries for him, keep his wardrobe up to date —something he had never figured out how to do without looking like a fashion disaster— reward him with a number of special deals, allow him to create a wish list of the things he wanted, and provide him with free samples to try! It was like a dream come true. It would also add a flag to his apps and browser that would effectively take care of the ads without depriving him of the joy of getting those packages. In fact those would be even better, as they would come as total surprises —little, unexpected bundles of joy— and if there was something there that he didn’t particularly care for? Well, then he could just send the item back, free of charge.
Yes, that was a solution to his problems, not that he thought there were going to be many misses, after all the ads that retailer had been showing him had been growing more accurate by the hour, and if signing up for such a program could get him at least a fraction of those without having to worry about the fact that he kept going over budget, so much the better. Sure, he would miss those ads, they had become an integral part of his life online, a reminder of what life should be, but as far as he was concerned the pros outweighed the cons by a not inconsiderable margin.
He was almost giddy as he watched the man install the smart lock on his door. It was yet another one of those benefits he could expect as a member of the Elite Shopping Experience that was associated with his virtual assistant, and a huge source of relief, as one of his packages had recently been stolen right from his doorstep while he was running an errand. Sure, the company had been kind enough to replace that one, but the whole ordeal had left a bad taste in his mouth, and if there was something he could do to avoid a repeat performance —something that was effectively free, as the smart lock was one of those perks he was actually entitled to— why shouldn’t he take full advantage of it?
Sure, from the outside the system sounded kind of intrusive, almost creepy, but the fact that the lock was fully automated, and could allow packages to be dropped by in his absence didn’t mean that there would be strangers walking in and out of his house at all hours of the day, nowhere near it. Oh, he would be able to okay deliveries from a distance if he wasn’t home with the certainty that the ID and picture of the one doing the delivering was going to be recorded, but at the end of the day that was little more than a stopgap measure, as for the most part the lock was meant to work in tandem with an experimental drone delivery system, and while for the time being that use would be rather limited, as those drones became more common, and the payload they could deliver increased, that was bound to change. Besides, the fact that he had chosen to install that lock meant that he would actually qualify for that kind of delivery in its trial stages, rather than when those services became publicly available, and he was really looking forward to seeing the first drone come into his house. He could even imagine his neighbors’ reactions. As far as he knew no one else on his street was affiliated with such a program. He was the first. For once he was at the forefront of the wave, the one they would look up to as having the coolest gadget.
Let them say now that he was a loser!
He had just gotten home from his father’s funeral. To say that the past couple of days had been rough would have been a gross understatement. Yes, the guy had been old, and his health had been failing for a while, so it wasn’t as if the outcome had been entirely unexpected, but in his mind his father had always been there, a towering presence, and the idea that that was no longer the case was going to take some getting used to… and that was without even taking into account the question of his mother. The good news, if it could even be called that, was that a few years prior his parents had moved into a retirement community, as they had been threatening to do for a while. True, at the time he hadn’t been entirely certain about that decision, but now the knowledge that his mother would be taken care of without really disrupting his life had morphed into a huge source of relief, especially because —having recently received a promotion— his sister had moved all the way across the country, and that had basically left him holding the bag when it came to their parents’ care.
Sure, the downside of their decision to move to that community was that the family home had also long since been sold, with the proceeds going to his parents’ care, and that the longer they lived, the less he and his sister stood to inherit, but at least he had his privacy and his peace of mind. Besides, with his father gone, the money was his mother’s to do with as she pleased, and while inheriting a tidy sum would definitely have come in handy, he didn’t begrudge her that care. It was just that he couldn’t help but to feel that things were changing, that there were aspects of his life that were spinning out of control again, and he hated that with a passion.
It had taken him so long to get his life back into some semblance of a working order after losing his job, and now all of a sudden he felt like things were back to being up in the air.
He hated change, he hated the fact that he didn’t know what to expect from one day to the next, but he also knew better than to complain.
Oh, and as if that weren’t enough there had also been the funeral itself, where he had found himself surrounded by people he hadn’t seen in ages offering their condolences. The whole thing had felt so empty. They were strangers, they didn’t know him —hell, more often than not he couldn’t even remember their names— and they knew it, so what was the point?
He was still thinking about that as he approached the door, digging for his keys, only they weren’t there. He felt the panic begin to rise until he heard the familiar beep that signaled a positive ID from his lock’s facial recognition software, and then he realized what he was doing. He shook his head at that. It had been ages since he had required an actual key to enter his house, so why had he found himself suddenly reaching for one? He didn’t know, all he knew was that he was finally, finally, home.
As he closed the door he also closed his eyes, allowing the tension of the day to drain from his body, and then, when he opened them once more, he saw the package that was waiting for him on the table.
That he really hadn’t been expecting.
Sure, he had called the helpline for his virtual assistant almost as soon as he had become aware of his father’s passing —a call that had been rather awkward, as the whole point of the system was supposed to be to keep things as close to fully automated as possible, but given that the recent events would entail a number of unexpected expenses that couldn’t really be put off, he had felt like he didn’t have much of a choice— but the thing was that that call had gone a lot better than he had ever dared to hope. The person on the other end of the line had not only been incredibly sympathetic, but also very efficient, helping him set things up in a way that had gone a long way towards minimizing both the stress and the hit his budget had taken. Still what he could never have imagined was that he would come home to a gift. It was nothing fancy, just some of his favorite sweets, and a note to let him know that they were aware of his loss, and to remind him that he was part of their family, but the fact that the gift had been personalized, that it was actually his favorite sweets, and not some random assortment, felt almost like a balm to his wary soul… especially after the confrontation he’d just had with his sister because, as if everything that was going on in his life weren’t enough, there was also the fact that, in the immediate aftermath of that funeral, the two of them had gotten into a major argument regarding their mother’s care.
In a nutshell, his sister was worried about her, and she wanted him to spend more time with the woman, keeping her company. Oh, on the one hand there was no getting around the fact that she actually had a point, that given that he was officially listed as disabled he had plenty of time to go visit, but the way in which she had told him that ‘it wasn’t like he had anything better to do with his life’ had really gotten to him. It was almost as if she were gloating about her recent promotion —as if she had been trying to take advantage of the fact that she had moved across the country to saddle him with a burden she didn’t want— and to make matters worse there was also the fact that the arguments she had presented him with hadn’t been of the kind that could be easily countered.
Yes, that had been a total and unmitigated disaster, and maybe that was yet another reason why that gesture from the company behind his virtual assistant —that little gift basket— had moved him so much: it had been a nice reminder of the fact that he wasn’t alone, that even if his sister saw him as little more than a bum, there were others who were actually rooting for him.
He was looking at his car with new eyes. For years that old clunker had been his pride and joy, but the previous day he had received a message from the company behind both his virtual assistant and his shopping experience, asking him if he’d be interested in selling it, and volunteering to help him do so. At that his almost instinctive reaction had been to say no. The notion that having a car was a sign of independence was a deeply ingrained one as far as he was concerned, but the more he thought about it, the more sense that seemingly ridiculous suggestion seemed to make. As the mail said, between repairs, taxes, maintenance, and insurance, the car was a drain on his resources he could most definitely do without. In fact, as the message pointed out, based on the number of miles he had driven it over the past two years, using a ride sharing service would have cost him only a fraction of what its upkeep had entailed, and that was without even taking into account the fact that, given that his car was one of the old, internal combustion ones, even something as mundane as a trip to the gas station was becoming a challenge, as those seem to be growing rarer by the hour. Gone were the days when you could be confident that you would be able to find a place to refuel within a ten, or even twenty, mile radius. Besides, given that his virtual assistant took care of most of his needs, the fact was that he didn’t really need it… and as they had also pointed out, there was something of a craze of people collecting the old gas guzzlers that was sweeping the country, and that given that he had always kept his in mint condition, it was as good a way as he was going to get to earn a pretty penny. Sure, he could try to hold on to it for a little longer, hoping that the prices would keep going up, but in doing so he would also be running the risk that the fad would fade, and where would he be then?
No, the notion of selling his car was not an easy one for him to stomach, but over the years he had come to trust that the people behind both his virtual assistant and his shopping experience had his best interests at heart. In fact he counted joining those services as one of the best decisions he had ever made, and as they kept reminding him, theirs was a business model that sought to provide a rare win-win-win as an outcome. It was a win for the customers, who could get on top of their finances while getting access to some pretty awesome deals, it was a win for the vendors, who were guaranteed a certain volume of sales while being free to cut back on their advertising expenses, and it was a win for the shopping experience provider as a whole, as they could buy in bulk, offer some all but unbeatable discounts, and still turn a tidy profit by taking a small cut from each and every one of those sales. In fact the only losers were brick-and-mortar retailers and advertisement agencies, who were effectively cut out of the loop, but as his provider kept reminding him, in the grand scheme of things those two were little more than parasites that did nothing but jack up the prices for everyone else, so who cared?
Yes, the system worked great, and it had only gotten better as time went by.
He still remembered his early days with the program. Back then drones had still been something of a novelty, but of course those days were long gone, as were de drivers in those ride sharing services that his virtual assistant was suggesting as an alternative to his own car, a fact that made them a lot safer than his old clunker could ever hope to be. In fact, if there was someone who could be described as a real threat out on the road, it was him, so maybe the time had come for him to let go of the past.
As the message said, the world had changed, and it was up to him to keep up with those changes.
In other words, what the company was suggesting, it made a lot of sense, and the only real problem was his own unnatural attachment to an old chunk of metal, a chunk of metal that stank and wasn’t anywhere near as comfortable as the more modern alternatives… one that, if he failed to take advantage of the opportunity that had suddenly been presented to him, could well wind up costing him his life.
He stared at his screen, not quite believing his eyes. He had actually won the lottery. No, it wasn’t the jackpot, but he had hit enough numbers to earn himself a few thousand bucks.
Oh, he knew he was never going to see that money, not in the old-fashioned sense of the word —it had been years since he had seen a bill or even a coin, as all his finances were fully automated, with his check being deposited each month into an account that was managed by his virtual assistant, and cash seemed like such a quaint concept anyway— but that was not the point. The point was that he had received an unexpected windfall, and with it were bound to come some interesting surprises. What form would those surprises take? It was impossible to tell, but that was half the fun. Besides, the one thing he knew for sure was that his virtual assistant would make the most of it.
He tried to think back to the last time he had sent back one of the items that virtual assistant had selected for him, but he couldn’t. That was how accurate it had become. The company behind it knew him better than anyone had ever known him before, and it showed. Hell, even his sister had gotten so caught up in her own life that she had forgotten his birthday on a couple of instances, but his assistant? Never!
Each year he could look forward to a little gift, carefully chosen, and always right on spot —not a tie he wouldn’t wear to his own funeral, or a book he was never going to read— and speaking of his birthday, it was right around the corner… the big six-o.
He swallowed hard at the thought.
He had spent the past few months feeling rather ambivalent about the whole thing. Sixty was a big, scary number, and while he didn’t feel all that old… well, at times he couldn’t help but to acknowledge the fact that the calendar begged to differ. In fact he could still remember a time when sixty had seemed downright ancient to him, a time when he had worried about the prospect of growing old, but in a twisted kind of way that had turned out to be one of those fears the loss of his job had freed him from.
Simply put, back when he was still working at the plant he had worried about the fact that sooner or later his age was bound to catch up with him, that he would be unable to do his job, but as soon as he had been fired —or maybe it would be more accurate to say as soon as his disability benefits had been approved— that particular fear had been swept from his mind. In fact he had had the one thing that retiring at the age of sixty or sixty-five wouldn’t have given him: a chance to get used to a life of leisure without the constant feel of impending doom that all too often characterized old age. Besides, given how things had changed, it had become much easier for the elderly to maintain their independence than it had been just a few years prior.
True, retirement communities were more popular than they had ever been before —in fact his own mother, with her eighty-four years, was still going strong in one of them— but with the advent of virtual assistants, plus ride sharing services that enabled the elderly to come and go as they pleased, food delivery services that could be customized to cater to whatever dietary restrictions they might have, and smart homes that pretty much cleaned up after themselves, retirement homes and communities had become a matter of choice, full of carefully chosen amenities, where the elderly could spend their final years enjoying the company of their peers, rather than places of last resort for those who had grown too feeble to live on their own, and had nowhere else to go. Besides, he was fairly certain that the elderly too were changing. That was only natural.
In fact, when he thought of his own life experiences compared to those of his parents, the differences were rather glaring. His parents had been high school sweethearts, they had gotten married in their early twenties, had two kids by the time they were thirty, and until the day his father had passed away they had led a fairly stereotypical life. He, on the other hand, had found himself a married man at the age of nineteen, almost against his will, as his girlfriend had been stupid enough to get herself pregnant, and back in those days marrying her was still basically what you did. She had miscarried, thank god, and by the time he was twenty-three he had been a free man. After that he had been involved with a number of women, but none of those relationships had amounted to much. He had a couple of buddies he got together to have a beer with every now and then, but for the most part social media was more than enough to meet his needs when it came to interacting with others, and he shuddered at the thought of losing his privacy. As for his sister, she too had gotten married, and then divorced, with the main difference being the fact that she had also found herself saddled with a couple of brats in the process. Oh, he loved his niece and nephew, but that was because he only saw them a couple of times a year, and when he did he could afford to play the cool uncle, but to live with them day in and day out? No way!
In a way he suspected it all went back to the fact that he and his parents had lived their adult lives in what amounted to two completely different worlds, which in turn were very different from the one his sister’s kids inhabited.
There had been no computers back when he was growing up. In fact he had been well into his twenties when he had first heard of such a thing as the internet, he had been thirty by the time he’d felt the need to purchase a computer of his own, and forty when he had first gotten his hands on what passed for a smart phone back in those days. Add some twenty-five years to those numbers, and the end result was that his mother hadn’t come into contact with the web until she was in her fifties, so the fact that she had never felt as comfortable in the virtual world as she did in the physical one, well, in a way that was to be expected. As for him, he was certainly more comfortable with technology than his mother would ever be, but at the same time he did understand what his sister meant when she bemoaned the fact that her own kids seemed incapable of even the most basic of human interactions, that they were so immersed in their virtual worlds and augmented realities that they seemed to be totally oblivious to what was going on around them.
Oh, that didn’t mean that he didn’t understand the appeal of those virtual realities —in fact at times he liked nothing better than to lose himself in those imaginary worlds— but the fact remained that those realities… well, more often than not they were tailor-made to suit the whims of a younger generation, meaning that he was about as comfortable there as his own mother had been shopping online, and the fact that from the designers’ perspective his generation was dismissed as little more than an afterthought went a long way towards compounding the problem.
Well, if he were being honest with himself he would have to admit that he had known for a while that that day was coming, that sooner or later his mother was bound to pass away, and that given that she was eighty-seven, that day was bound to come sooner rather than later, but still the call to notify him of the fact that that day had morphed into a today had caught him somewhat off guard. Yes, in a way the fact that she had passed in her sleep had been a blessing, but at the same time it also meant he hadn’t had the time to mentally prepare himself for that moment, that he hadn’t had the chance to go and actually say goodbye.
It was also as if the last link to his childhood had somehow been severed, which was an odd thought for a man who was well into his sixties to have, and yet he couldn’t quite shake it.
Sure, his sister was still around, but she lived almost a thousand miles away, and while up to that point she had always made an effort to visit on major holidays —he could thank the fact that their mother had been in no shape to travel for that— now that their mother was gone there was no reason for her not to ask him to reciprocate. The problem was that he hated her house with a passion, and he wasn’t expecting that to change any time soon. Oh, he knew that at least at first they were going to try to stay in touch by calling each other at least a couple of times a month, as they had been doing for a while, but the thing was that in the last year or so those calls had been feeling more like a chore than anything else, with his sister asking mostly about their mother, and insisting that he go visit her to deliver one pointless message or another, so he wouldn’t be all that surprised if in their mother’s absence even those calls petered out. As for his niece and nephew, those were young adults now, and had already left the nest, though from what he had heard they were struggling to find their footing out in the real world. In fact for the past couple of years her problems with her kids had been his sister’s other topic of conversation, as if there were anything he could hope to do about that one.
In other words, there was no getting around the fact that his mother’s passing was likely to deal a significant blow to his relationship with his sister as well, not that that relationship was likely to end with a bang. It was just that now that their mother was gone chances were that they would just drift apart, as they had been doing for a while. Oh, they would probably call each other around christmas and for their birthdays for as long as they both lived, exchanging some shallow excuses to explain away the fact that they were not together on that particular occasion, but that was likely to be the extent of it.
In fact, now that he thought about it, he realized that it had been a little more than a month since his last visit to his mother. That thought did cause a twinge of guilt deep within him, but there was no changing the past… or the fact that there had been a reason why he had been so reluctant to go see her, as the last couple of times he had dropped by his mother seemed to have been struggling just to remember his name.
That had been depressing, and it had also been something his sister had been spared, making it easy for her to nag him about the fact that he wasn’t spending as much time with their mother as she felt he should. Besides, it wasn’t as if the old woman had been neglected. In fact he knew she had received the best care to her dying day, and she had also spent her final years right where she’d wanted to.
Oh, on a rational level he knew that over the last couple of years his sister had been feeling guilty because he was there, and she wasn’t, but that certainly hadn’t been his fault, and the fact that she hadn’t been there was one of those things no amount of nagging, or attempted guilt trips, could have changed. Still, it was something he suspected was going to make the upcoming funeral even more awkward than it would otherwise have been.
He let out a sigh, knowing that there was no getting out of that one, and that problem was compounded by the fact that his sister would actually be attending their mother’s funeral. Had his sister lived in town the whole thing would have been over in a matter of hours, as she would have been able to go home the minute the service was over, but she didn’t. She lived all the way across the country, and that in turn meant that —given that she was likely to be in town for a number of days, and that it was beginning to look like neither one of her kids were going to make it— he was going to find himself with no choice but to play host. After all it wasn’t as if he could ship her off to a hotel, not when she was traveling alone, they were supposed to be mourning together, and he had a perfectly serviceable guest room.
Well, with a little luck it wouldn’t be so bad, after all growing up the two of them had been fairly close, and he knew that —when the going had gotten tough— it had been his sister who had come through for him, that she had been the one who had first suggested that he file for disability, and in doing so she had basically saved his life. The problem was that in the intervening years things had changed. Back then they had both been struggling. He had been trying to cope with the loss of his job, while she had still been dealing with the fallout from her divorce. Okay, so that one had taken place a couple of years prior, but it had taken her a while to find her footing. In fact it had been her being promoted, with the relocation it entailed, that had finally enabled her to truly move forward, and she had.
Yes, he knew how petty that sounded, and the truth was that at the end of the day he was fairly happy with his lot, as he knew how much worse things might have turned out for him. Hell, he still got together with some of his former drinking buddies every now and then, guys who had been around his age when disaster struck, but hadn’t been lucky enough to qualify for disability benefits. He knew how they had struggled, to the point that even though they were at, or even past, what should have been retirement age, chances were that they would have no choice but to work till they dropped, as they had never quite been able to escape the setback of that plant’s closing. In fact they had spent the twenty plus years since bouncing from one menial job to the next, with wages that barely enabled them to get by… and with even the smallest of medical emergencies leaving them with no choice but to pile on more and more debt, digging them deeper into a whole they would never be able to escape.
Anyway, the point was that while under the circumstances he knew he had gotten lucky, the fact remained that since she had received that promotion his sister’s life had basically taken off, and while at times she was frustrated by her children’s seeming inability to act like adults, she had been able to travel the world, and for all her grumbling about her kids, at the end of the day there was no getting around the fact that, unlike him, even those two had graduated from college, and seemed to be doing about as well as could be expected, so much so that even her complaints at time felt almost like a humble brag… a humble brag that also served as a rather annoying reminder of how far his own life hadn’t gotten him.
He went over the notification he had just received about the birthday present he had sent his sister.
Yes, his virtual assistant took care of all his shopping needs —and even though he did receive a statement detailing each and every transaction at the end of the month, it had been years since he had done more than glance at the blasted thing— but there were some items the system felt warranted a special mention in real time, namely those he wouldn’t get to see, such as presents. That was probably a good idea. No, it wasn’t that he cared what it was that the system had selected for his sister, it was just that if she were to mention it he figured he ought to know what the heck it was that she was talking about. Of course, deep down he suspected that, when his birthday came around, his sister got a similar notice from her own service provider, after all those services had long since become the norm, and considering how he had gushed about its benefits chances were that she was actually using the same company he was. That would not only explain how was it that her gift-giving had become so insightful all of a sudden, but also how was it that she always managed to get him something he could use without ever making the mistake of getting him something he already had.
Well, this time around the birthday in question was hers, and that meant that he had already done his bit, and that in a few days he could expect a message thanking him for his thoughtfulness. Funny, in the old days his sister had never been anywhere near as punctilious when it came to her thank you notes, but considering the fact that he had long since foisted that particular chore on his virtual assistant, it seemed like a pretty safe bet that her notes too were actually being sent by such a service.
For a moment he wondered when had he last truly interacted with her.
It was hard to tell. He knew it had been almost two years since they had actually been in the same room at the same time, that was easy enough, but it had been ages since texts had replaced actual calls, and given how much he had come to rely on his virtual assistant to keep his life organized—and assuming that his sister was relying on one of her own— telling their real interactions from the virtual ones was getting to be all but impossible. Of course, he also knew that was one of those thoughts that would never even have occurred to either his niece or his nephew. For them letting their assistants take over those tasks they didn’t want to deal with was the most natural thing in the world, and that in turn made him feel old, almost ancient.
He belonged to the last generation that could still remember what life before the advent of computers had been like. He was closer to seventy than he was to sixty, and while he had spent the past couple of decades doing his best to keep up, at times he couldn’t help but to feel that he had been left behind.
Sure, he had a virtual reality kit that allowed him to experience the world in a way he had never thought possible —just like everyone else— but finding scenarios that were actually appealing to him was all but impossible. Simply put, with the exception of sporting events in which broadcasting was taken to a completely different level, and some scenarios that were specifically designed with children in mind, most alternative realities were programmed by kids in their twenties and thirties, and they tended to cater to that particular crowd. Okay, so there were also some that were supposed to enable him to travel the world without leaving the comfort of his home that were indeed geared towards his own age group, but those tended to be rather snobbish. They put a ridiculous emphasis on things such as concerts and museums, and those places… they had never been his cup of tea. Hell, he had never even been that fond of tea to begin with.
Anyway, the thing was that at times he was caught somewhat off guard by thoughts like the one about his interactions with his sister —or lack thereof— and he couldn’t help but to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. It was as if they were keeping up the charade of being in touch while out in the real world the only ones that were actually interacting with each other were a couple of virtual assistants that were pretending to be them.
Well, at least the presents were real enough. They might not be choosing them themselves, but they were certainly getting them, and the fact that for once they were things they could actually use was a most welcome development.
His joints were aching. That was not exactly a new development, but the fact that it wasn’t new didn’t make the feeling any less unpleasant. In fact just getting out of bed was becoming something of a challenge, but fortunately he was still strong enough to function.
Oh, there was no doubt in his mind as to the fact that just a couple of decades prior the situation would long since have become untenable, but as things stood it was manageable. His virtual assistant kept his freezer well stocked with ready to eat meals that his smart microwave invariably nuked to perfection, and he had a ridiculously fancy vacuum cleaner that not only served to ensure that his floors would remain immaculate, but was also smart enough not to get underfoot. His main problem was boredom, as both his sight and hearing were fading, and fading fast, but even there he had gotten lucky, as he had never been too fond of reading, and his virtual reality kit had settings that were automatically adjusted to help him compensate for those creeping disabilities, so even though things weren’t looking anywhere near as sharp as they had looked only a couple of years prior, the changes to that virtual world were nowhere near as apparent as the ones he encountered when he tried to navigate the physical one… not that when it came to navigating that one he was left to his own devices, which in turn was another one of those things that made it possible for him to retain his independence.
Sure, he could have added new glasses, or even some fancy hearing aids to his wish list to ease that process if he’d really wanted to, but what was the point? He had nowhere to go, and even when he ventured out of the house his virtual assistant took care of most of the nitty-gritty. It contacted the ride sharing service for him, inputed his destination, and helped him make his way home once he was done. As for the places he went to… well, most of those were as automated as could be, and the few exceptions, the places in which he had no choice but to interact with others, such as his doctor’s office, tended to have the necessary accommodations to help him compensate for his limitations. As for the fact that he could no longer hear what the blasted woman was saying, that didn’t matter either —in fact it came almost as a relief— and that indifference, that irritation he felt whenever he was in her presence, was something even he had to admit was a bit of an issue.
Yes, on a rational level he knew that dismissing her out of hand wasn’t necessarily the brightest of ideas, and he certainly wasn’t stupid enough not to realize that making a mistake when the time came to take his medication could be risky, but his assistant was well aware of what his schedule was supposed to be in that regard, and his pills came in weekly, smart and pre-sorted packages that made it all but impossible for him to take the wrong pill or even the wrong dosage at the wrong time, so he figured that, as long as he did as his assistant and the packets told him, he would be fine. As for her words… well, deep down he had always felt that doctors were a bunch of pompous asses that insisted on talking down to him, so the fact that he could no longer hear them didn’t particularly bother him. As for his friends, that list seemed to be getting shorter by the hour. Some had moved away, others had actually died, and the ones that remained… well, those tended to be as blind, as deaf, and as cantankerous as he was… no, for the most part they were even worse.
The lock unlatched itself, letting the drone in to deliver its payload. It was a birthday present from the old man’s sister, which the system promptly acknowledged as such, triggering the function that would send her an appropriate thank you note. The droned scanned its surroundings. The countertops were littered with all kinds of unopened packages, but eventually it found a spot, and proceeded to deposit its cargo. Having successfully completed its task it flew away, while in the house the vacuum cleaner cleaned, and on the bed the half-mummified body continued to gather dust.