The waiting room air was still; stark white walls leaching out any character the mottled green and gray carpet may have provided. Mercifully, the sound on the video was off, although the screen continued its display of fires, storm damage, flashing police lights, and other signs of tragedy.
He slumped in a chair along the wall. Fearful. Straining to find hope, with little success. He looked around at the handful of his companions occupying some of the other the uncomfortable seats that filled the large room. A woman knitting a shapeless blue thing. A young man scanning a tablet and looking bored. An older couple with their heads together murmuring to each other. None looked particularly worried - were their issues minor, routine matters, or did they just not care?
She had collapsed and was almost immobile when he had brought her in. Persistent systemic collapse. That's what he had heard it called when the staff first looked at her. She had been having problems for a while; some trouble moving and a clear lack of energy. It had started with small things. Easily taken care of, it seemed, but the visits here started to happen more and more often. Then it wasn't just one thing that was wrong, but two. Or three. He had thought it couldn't be too serious. They had always been able to fix the problem; surely there would always be something that could be done. At least that was what he had wanted to believe. He had come home this afternoon to find her on the floor, barely responsive. This was his fault. Would today have been avoided if he had done more after the earlier
She had been too heavy for him to carry. He had to call on strangers to help. He worried that they would not be careful with her, that they might injure her further, but they had been gentle and attentive. He had been near panic on the ride over, wishing the driver would go faster.
His back was letting him know that something had torn when he had tried to lift her. He decided to ignore it as much as it would let him. Alternately pacing the floor and collapsing into the chair, he felt useless. He wanted to care for her, as she had always cared for him. He wanted to do something. Be involved. Make a difference.
But she was in the hands of others now.
He thought of how she had been a constant presence when he was a child. Searching to find his earliest memory of her, he couldn't decide on one. Perhaps that was because she was so much in his life back then that his early memories were all centered on other things. Places she had taken him. Events that happened because of her.
There was the public playground where she would take him on sunny afternoons. A carousel he loved to ride held court in the great green expanse that formed the center of the park. At first he had been scared of the horses that moved up and down as the carousel twirled, gripping firmly instead onto a pony bolted securely to the floor of the ride. Gradually, she had coaxed him into climbing onto one of the wild, bobbing horses, standing beside him so he felt safe. He found that he loved the sense of soaring as the park whizzed past him, his hair tousled in the wind as he rode his magnificent prancing steed. For a long time, they had visited the park every week.
She had taught him to ride his first scoot, holding him up as he wobbled along the path until he suddenly realized he was riding steady and she had let go. Whatever happened to that thing?
She had tried, as best she could, to help him understand girls. When he was in high school, she had made suggestions on where to take his dates. How to dress to look good in class. What kind of topics to avoid in conversations when there were girls around. He had never become the most popular guy, but he had done well. He hadn't married yet, but there were possibilities.
College. What a struggle that had been after his father died by his own hand. She had been his main source of comfort while he was feeling cut off from the world. Adrift. He had lost a year, awash in bewilderment at not just the loss of the man, but the destruction of an icon that had been a fraud. A fake. A con. Dying in ignominy. How could he continue without the man who had been the example he had always been told was his to follow?
She had pulled him back from whatever dark place his mind had gone. Helped him find a new direction; one that was his own instead of a copy taken from someone else. She had helped him study to regain his academic standing, digging into material she had no reason to learn other than to help him. He owed her his career.
Once out of school and established in a good job on his own, he had moved her into his home, knowing that she had no place else to go. Many of his friends had teased him about the arrangement and the money it was costing him; the expenses that had limited his participation in their travels and adventures. The few who knew him best seemed to understand and the kidding had abated as his career, and income, had accelerated.
Memories. He was well past the age when he actually needed her, when she could do much for him, but he had been keeping her close despite her growing infirmities. Maybe it was because of the memories.
He began pacing again. Fretting. He had been waiting for hours. What were they doing? What had they found? When would he be able to take her home? After this he would bring her in every week if that's what it would take.
A woman came through the door. Fully professional. Hair pinned back. Long white lab coat. Seriousness and sympathy spread across her face. A face that had delivered bad news too many times. He did not remember seeing her on any of their previous visits. He raised his hand when she called his name.
He stood as she walked up to him. She looked like she wanted to reach out to him, but her hands continued to grip a white tablet. "I'm sorry. We weren't able to bring her back. The damage was too extensive. Too many things going wrong at the same time."
He tensed his body, biting his lip as he tried to calm himself. Finally, "There wasn't anything you could do?" Leaning towards her as his breathing slowed, he searched her face for any sign of hope.
"Her system was unsustainable. She just wore out. The company couldn't justify the expense of any further procedures or replacements. At this point it is their call. It's in the contract. I'm sorry."
His shoulders collapsed as he nodded in understanding. Everything was driven by spreadsheets these days. Cost-benefit calculations. He had resisted any thoughts of the costs he had borne, choosing always to decide in favor of her. Now the decision to end it was being made for him.
His scalp prickled with embarrassment as he stared blankly at the floor between them. "You must think me odd."
"No, I actually see this quite often. Much more so than many people would expect."
"May I see her?"
"Of course. Come with me."
They left the waiting room, entering the working area of the facility. More white walls. Speckled hard plastic flooring. Glaring overhead lights. Technicians in identical pale blue outfits moving around, tending to various machines. Fabric screens dividing the large room into individual cells. The woman led him to one of the partitioned areas and motioned for him to go in. Fearful, he peered around the screen. Dragging one foot after the other, he shuffled to her side.
He looked at her lying on the table, looking small and broken where once he had seen her as invincible. He gazed at the face that had shown him such caring, sympathy, affection, and encouragement despite being made of inflexible plasticene. He caressed the steel fingers that had held him so gently when he was young.
"What happens now?"
"Her memory unit is intact, so that will be scanned to improve algorithms for future models. She obviously had very effective processes. Look at how you turned out. They call interface design a science, but it's really more of an art. There's so much we don't know about what works. A unit that has done as well as she has can teach us a lot."
A thin smile crept onto his face. "She was special."
The woman continued, "Her frame and many other parts are made of very valuable material, so those components will be recycled. She did well by you. She'll continue to be useful to others."
He felt tears beginning to form in his eyes, his throat tightening in shame. "I never told her how important she was to me."
"If you hadn't maintained the lease, she would have been retired and recycled more than a decade ago. She knew. Trust me, they always know."
See more stories from the "Summer of Love" contest here