by Andrew Hoffman
Betty sat in a brown leather chair, angles of light slicing through the blinds, waiting for Speery to enter. His office was filled with computer boards, fiber-optic wiring, fuses and other assorted electrical devices and parts, but Betty wasn’t interested in anything other than the arrival of Speery.
“There you are!” Speery said as he came into the office, his voice loud and jovial.
“Yes, sir. As you requested.”
Speery made his way around the desk and sat. “How are you this fine morning?”
“I do not understand, sir.”
“Right,” Speery said, tapping his head with his fingers. “I don’t usually bring servants in here. I forgot who I was speaking to.”
“Do you have a command for me, sir?”
“In a way.” Speery cleared his throat. “Who’s scheduled for your next maintenance, Betty?”
“And when was it last done?”
“Two months ago, sir. I have approximately one month until my next appointment.”
Speery grunted to himself and coughed. “That should work fine, then.”
“Do you have another command, sir?”
Speery smiled. “How would you feel about an upgrade?”
“I would feel nothing.”
Speery nodded and didn’t speak for a few moments. Then he excused Betty.
Betty went about her late morning routine as usual. Clearing the table, emptying the trash, feeding the animals. Norman, the other servant, assisted her.
“Norman, one hour until lunch preparations begin. You should go sit,” Betty said after they had completed the morning tasks. “Return at twelve.”
“Yes, Betty.” Norman walked out of the room, up the stairs, and into the second room on the right. He shut the door behind him, sat in his chair, and went to sleep.
Betty walked to the edge of the dining room and stood next to a tall lamp. Suddenly, Speery ran into the room.
“Betty, quickly, come with me!”
Betty followed. “Sir?” she asked as they entered Speery’s office.
“Eubeniks has informed me that I may complete your quarterly maintenance.”
A metal foldout table had been set up next to his desk. He motioned for Betty to lie down.
“What about lunch, sir?” Betty asked as she climbed up on to the table.
“I’ve no appetite for food,” Speery said, excitement bubbling below his voice. “We have a long afternoon before us.”
Betty went to sleep and Speery lifted the panel on her back to expose the myriad of wires that existed below the surface. He gazed in, daydreaming about what futures were ahead for the electricity that shot through those wires.
Forty-five minutes later, Norman returned to the empty kitchen. He walked to the corner of the room and went to sleep, waiting for Betty to return.
Speery gave the insides of Betty a proper cleaning, leaving them shining as brightly as the day they had been crafted. He spent the better part of four hours wrist deep inside his patient. The last thing he did was remove a small chip from one of Betty’s internal boards and replaced it with a chip that looked nearly identical. Nearly, but not completely.
Betty threw the large doors open wide when she returned to the kitchen that evening. A short film clip played in her head: A human standing on the edge of a cliff, breathing in the air, arms lifted. Betty felt an energy course through her that she had never experienced before.
Norman was still asleep in the corner of the room, silent and lifeless.
“Norman, open your eyes and witness it all!”
Norman’s eyes lit up. “Yes, Betty, my eyes are open.”
Betty went to each side of the room, opening all the doors and windows. “Look at all this,” she said. She spun in a circle to see it all in one panorama.
Another film clip played in her head: A young human whose mouth slowly widens and curls into a sly grin.
Betty slowly turned to Norman. He had been watching her, taking in the peculiar information of her actions. “We must prepare an outstanding meal. Can we do that, Norman?”
Betty was suddenly troubled. Everything seemed too formal for her. Too tight and rehearsed and devoid of life.
She put her hand on Norman’s shoulder. “Don’t sound so resigned when you say yes. Say it from somewhere down here,” she said, pointing at his hollow chest and making head movements as she spoke that neither she nor Norman understood, trying to add a certain style and emphasis to the words through body language.
“Betty?” Norman asked, peering down at his chest, hoping for further explanation.
“Down here!” Betty said, moving her head a little more while tapping on her own chest. “But don’t talk,” she said, almost interrupting her own instruction, holding up one hand to Norman as if to hush him. “Let the day soak into you and you into it!” She laughed in a short, choppy burst. Her vocal capacity did not allow for all-out laughter.
“Betty, are you malfunctioning?”
“I hope so,” she said, surveying Norman’s mechanical movements. A third short film clip played in her head: A human is putting groceries in the trunk of their car. Another human gets out of their car a few spaces down. Their eyes meet and there is an odd moment.
The light in Betty’s eyes flickered.
They served salami sandwiches and soup for dinner. Betty made slight alterations to the recipe, which secretly delighted Speery. She was showing a creative spark. After Speery had swallowed his first spoonful of soup, Betty leaned toward him. “So?” she asked.
“Very good, Betty. Possibly less salt next time. But very good.”
“Too much salt!” she scolded herself. “I would have tasted it but…” She pointed at her mechanical mouth and that was explanation enough.
“We all have limitations, Betty. We only need to identify and conquer them when possible,” Speery said. “The difficult part is learning to work alongside the things that are insurmountable.”
A short film clip played in Betty’s head: A young human with no legs shuffles down a set of stone steps on their hands.
“What are you thinking?”
“Sir?” Betty asked, resurfacing into the moment.
“It looked as if you were lost in thought.”
Betty thought about what Speery had said. “I don’t fully understand your comment, but thank you.” She walked to the corner of the room, stood next to Norman, and put her hand on his shoulder.
“Do you have a command for me?” Norman asked.
“I have no commands for you.”
Norman looked at the hand on his shoulder but did not say anything.
Speery watched the perplexing situation as he finished his bowl of salty soup. Eventually he stood and left the room, leaving the two servants alone in the corner.
Later that evening, Betty knocked on Sperry’s office door. Speery called for her to enter. She opened the door but could not bring herself to walk into the room.
“I wondered how long it would take you to ask,” Speery said.
“To ask what?”
“What you’re thinking about right now.”
“How do you know I’m thinking at all?”
Speery stood and walked around the desk to her. “Because,” he said, “you have certain traits that can’t make you anything but curious.”
This confused Betty.
“Sit,” Speery said, pointing to the brown leather chair that she had sat on earlier that day. Speery walked back around the desk and sat in his own brown leather chair.
“Ask me the question that is most prevalent in your mind.”
Betty paused. “Well… I have visions now.” She paused again. “Movies that accompany my thoughts.”
Speery opened his desk drawer and retrieved a small data chip. “Do you see this?”
“This changed your life. Not this chip exactly, but one very similar.” Speery took a moment to look the chip over. “I’ve been working on this for months. Years. These chips are outlawed because they’ve caused unforeseeable issues in the past. But I’ve loaded a short bit of film corresponding to each feeling that you now process. I believe I’ve made these feelings more manageable by giving a context to align them with.”
Speery leaned his head on his hand and exhaled. “I briefly considered this possibility, but honestly, I’m surprised.”
“Will he get this chip? Will his life change?”
“Later maybe. Let’s see what happens with you.” Speery smiled. “Now, off to bed. Go see if you can dream a dream.”
Betty climbed the wooden staircase and followed the hall to the room where Norman had already retired. She charged next to him every night, but that night felt very different. She sat and watched him instead of turning herself off. The energy surging through her body felt like waves of heat thrumming and pulsing. A short film clip played in her head: A beach full of humans lying face down on towels, enjoying the sun. Hundreds of them. One turns over but it’s not a human, it’s Norman. His blank face looks up at the sky. Then more and more turn over. All of them with Norman’s face. All of them staring up, not at the sky but at the sun.
After the clip ended, Betty sat in her chair until nearly four in the morning. She turned her lit eyes toward Norman and could see the light reflecting back from his. He sat in his seat without stirring, a dead mechanical stillness for the moonlit hours. Suddenly, a very human thought entered Betty’s head.
A short film clip cued: An old human wise in eyes and lines of the face is shaking their head and mouthing the word NO. Betty shut off the clip. She glanced over at Norman’s unmoving frame and made up her mind.
Betty lightly descended the wooden stairs and crossed the house to Speery’s office. She tried the door but it was locked. She softly walked to the settee at the end of the hall and pulled the right side away from the wall. A silver key sat on the floor, the same one she had seen Speery use when he had misplaced his ring of keys weeks earlier.
The office door swung open with a very slight creak. Betty stood very still and listened for footsteps. After a few soundless moments she proceeded into Speery’s office, walked around his desk, and sat in his chair. She looked at the chair across the desk that she had sat in only a few hours before. The foldout table where she had been stretched out for her cleaning was still in the corner. She briefly admired the quiet of the room. A short film clip flicked on: A motion x-ray of a heart beating much too fast. She didn’t fully understand the clip, but could feel the emotion it was trying to help her understand. The emotion was enough.
She pulled out the drawer that contained the chip Speery had showed her earlier. She held the chip up and examined the small, flat square of information. She was astounded that a small inanimate collection of data could so wholly change a life. Another choppy laugh escaped her, a laugh that celebrated all that was stored in the little chip, while at the same time revering what it could do for poor, lifeless Norman, who unknowingly waited upstairs to be released from his cold cell of servitude.
Norman’s eyes lit up.
“Yes,” he said, first looking around the room then back at Betty. “Is there an emergency?”
“Norman, I have a command for you.”
“What is it?”
“Can you lie on the floor?”
Without hesitating, he stood from his seat and lowered himself to the ground. Betty released the latch to the panel on his back.
“What is this command for?” Norman asked.
“What is your purpose?”
“This is not entirely a command… it’s a favor.”
“I do not complete favors, I complete commands.” Norman’s voice was calm and even.
“Stop talking Norman. In a few minutes you will have better things to say.”
“Stop!” she yelled.
Norman’s eyes dimmed. Betty felt her insides sink. A clip played in her head: A large human is shoving a small human. The larger one laughs as they push. The smaller human takes the abuse without response. Betty stopped the clip. This is different, she thought. This is a blessing.
Betty’s hands maneuvered the foreign landscape of Norman’s insides. Finally, she found a chip that was identical in size. She plucked out the old chip and replaced it with the new. She reset Norman, rolled him over, and waited.
All was silent, save for the night-creaks of the house. Betty felt confused yet elated by her own actions. She waited anxiously.
Norman was an older model that took longer to reset but his eyes finally flicked back on. To Betty they seemed like two candle flames in the dim early morning room.
Norman sat up, swiveled his head from one side of the room to the other. “Where am I?” he asked.
“In the residence of Reginald Speery,” Betty replied.
He lifted his hands, studied them. “Who are you?”
“My name is Betty.”
“No, just Betty.” She felt a very human pang of sadness due to the fact that she had not known how to do a partial reset like she had gone through during her own upgrade. She had completely reset his memory. The very Norman with whom she had cooked a thousand meals, had charged next to hundreds of nights, looked at her with blank, unfamiliar eyes.
“Huh?” Norman said. “Look at that.”
Betty followed his gaze to a streetlamp beaming light outside the window. Norman stood and briefly moved his legs and arms with curiosity, then walked out of the room and down the stairs.
“Norman, where are you going?”
Norman didn’t reply, opened the front door, and disappeared into the dark early morning. Betty followed, closing the door after herself. Norman made his way to the corner where the streetlamp was located, stood very still, and marveled up at the light that glowed down at him.
“A much grander streetlamp will rise in the sky in a couple hours, you know,” Betty said, not knowing what else might get his full attention.
“I’d like to see that.”
“You’ll have to. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”
Norman continued down the street, from lamp to lamp, gazing up into the lights. Betty tried to talk him back toward home, but he kept on down the street, mysteriously attracted to anything that emitted light. He was mindlessly fascinated. He only spoke when spoken to. Otherwise, he moved from one lamp to the next, with only a short reflective pause at each.
Betty began to worry as they strayed further from home. This was an emotion she didn’t particularly enjoy. A film clip turned on in her head: A montage of children walking away from their parents. The shots zoom in beyond the children to the worried faces of their parents. It made Betty feel sick.
“Norman, where are you going?”
“Toward the light.”
Betty had heard the phrase used by humans when discussing death. Death—a word that had meant so little to her until very recently. A film clip cued in her head but she turned it off before it could start.She had no interest in watching. The feeling was, once again, more than enough. An invisible pool rose up and consumed her. She was trying to tread water in her emotion and was failing.
Betty was wrenched out of her melancholy by Norman’s innocent voice. The deluge subsided. She looked over at Norman, still in his familiar pose, staring up at the man-made light. She realized she was surrounded by light-posts, a bench under each one. A gathering place for humans. Betty lifted her eyes skyward and turned in a circle to view them all.
“This really is something,” she said, realizing the beauty of the lights in a group.
“So, you see it? You believe.” Norman asked.
“I never doubted.” She was going to add another thought but nothing sounded quite right.
Norman lay down on the concrete, face up, taking in the abundance of illumination. Betty looked down at him. He gleamed brilliantly in the abundance of light. Betty lowered herself next to him. Just the two of them, surrounded by light on all sides, like two small rafts adrift in a vast sea. They gave themselves up to all that was around them.
Suddenly, the lamps hummed and turned off. The sun wasn’t fully up, but a mist of sunlight had risen in the east, breezily flooding over the mountains and down into the valley. The sun would finish heaving itself over the horizon in a matter of minutes. Betty and Norman didn’t move or talk. The silence and the pale glow in the air resuscitated any beauty that may have faded by night.
“Hey!” a voice rang out, shattering the fragile moment.
Betty sat up quickly and looked around. Two policemen stood just outside of the circle of lampposts.
“What are you two doing?” one of the policemen asked.
Betty and Norman didn’t say anything.
“Nothing,” Betty said, she motioned to Norman. “He was running low on power, so we stopped.”
“Why would that help?”
The lie made a film click on in her head: A dog chasing its tail, never succeeding, round and round forever.
“I do not know why we thought it would help.”
The policemen crept in closer, hands gripped on their electric clubs.
“We were just leaving, I swear it.”
The first policeman glanced over at the second. “You what?” the second asked.
“Nothing,” said Betty. A cold and bottomless feeling took over Betty’s wire-filled belly. Norman was still on the ground next to her. She slowly got up.
“I’ve never heard a servant swear to anything.” The second policeman turned to the first. “You?”
He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”
“What?” Betty asked without effect.
“What command are you fulfilling?” the first policeman asked.
“To… go to town.”
“In order to do what?”
“Fill an order at… Westphal’s,” Betty said, a liar’s gap split the response into two distinct parts.
“Really? Going to the store at—” the policeman checked the time on his watch, “—at six-thirty in the morning?”
Betty remained firm in her lie. “Yes.”
“Turn around, please,” the first policeman said.
“Why?” Betty started to backpedal.
The two policemen rushed to either side of her and dropped her to the ground with two solid blows from their electric clubs. She turned to look at Norman who was still lying on his back, motionless. She never had the chance to ask him why he didn’t stand. She never asked him anything again.
“Enough of this,” one of the policemen said just before everything went dark for Betty.
Betty’s eyes lit up. She was in a strange, impersonal room. Nothing on the walls, shelves packed with binders and crates and manila folders—a room full of the unnecessary and forgotten. Speery was propped up against the wall reading.
“Where are we?” Betty asked. She tried to sit up and realized she had been strapped down.
“Keep still,” Speery said, looking up from his book.
Betty settled back down, the shameful feeling of restraint soaked and boiled in her joints. A film clip appeared in her head: A small animal caught in a steel trap. It is afraid and angry and not brave enough to gnaw off its clamped limb.
“Where are we?”
“At the police station,” Speery said. “You strayed too far from home.”
“Norman wouldn’t come back.”
“You should have let him go.”
“I couldn’t do that.” Betty saw Norman lying on another table, also strapped down. His face was directed at the fluorescent lights but no brightness came from his own eyes. He was turned off.
Speery smiled sadly. “That makes you decent.And like many decent people, it is that trait which can get you in a bind. Can ruin you.”
“What do you mean?”
“It means…” Speery looked at her sympathetically yet professionally. He exhaled and blinked, grasping for the right words. “You have something in you that feels very much like a heart.” Speery put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ve been given the unfortunate task, by the authorities, of breaking that heart. I’m sorry.”
All feeling rushed out of Betty. All that existed in her body was the floating sensation of a distant cloud. Suddenly, a lightning bolt shot down from that cloud. Betty flailed in her straps. She violently jolted her arms and thrashed her legs, but the straps held tight.
“Stop,” Speery said. “Stop.” The command was tenderly spoken.
“What is going to happen?”
“What has been ordered to happen.”
Betty focused on the ceiling. Not on the lights but on the drab white ceiling tiles. They were perfect. A phalanx of bland squares that formed a chessboard of a single tone. No other side to strategize against, a peaceful land not at war.
“Why did you do this to me?” Betty asked.
“To see what would happen. And I wasn’t let down.”
Betty kept her eyes on the ceiling.
“You knew it was a finite gift. I encoded that as best I could in the chip. I didn’t want to tell you. I wanted you to feel it, just the way I feel in my guts that my own life is very limited.”
“You gave me so much to want and so little time. Tomorrow. Next year. A decade. It’s not enough. It was cruel.”
“I know. Life is a majestic cruelty. But we all drink from that same cup. Though fools don’t linger on the fact that the cup will one day be empty. At least you had a sip.” Speery stopped for a moment. “I hope you enjoyed it because now I’m forced to pour the rest out.”
“Was he a fool?” Betty asked, looking at Norman.
“Yes, but in the best way. He didn’t have film clips loaded on his chip. He had no context for his first feeling, so he clutched onto it tightly and didn’t let go.”
Betty saw a film clip in her head: Norman lying on the concrete staring up at the glow from the streetlamps that encircled them. It was a memory, not a preloaded clip. A short burst of pride surged through her.
Outside, the sun had risen over the eastern mountains and a clear, wintery morning glare was shooting lines of sunlight through the partially closed blinds.
“Can you show Norman the sun before you remove his chip? I told him about it but I don’t think he understood what I was talking about. I would like for him to understand.”
Speery thought about it for a moment, then walked over and twisted the plastic pole to open the blinds. He went over to Norman and lifted him up enough to slide his hand under his back and power him on. His eyes slowly brightened.
“Huh?” he said.
“Nothing, Norman,” Speery said. “There is nothing to wonder about.”
Norman spotted the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and lost himself in them. Speery walked over to the door and turned the light switch off.
“Oh,” Norman said.
“Would you like to see something better?”
“I think so.”
Betty didn’t speak and Norman didn’t take notice of her across the room. She watched his child-like focus on what mesmerized him as if she was watching a film clip in her head. She learned something about how she felt from watching him.
Speery asked, “Do you like that?”
“I think so,” Norman said. Speery let him stare at the sun for a full minute, then lifted him up and powered him off.
“What a way to go,” Speery said.
He turned his attention back to Betty. All of the emotions in Betty swelled up to a crescendo and ignited her insides. She couldn’t control them. She didn’t want to. Speery walked over and slid his hand under her back. Betty turned her head toward the lifeless shell of Norman.
“The sweet memory of dreams to you,” Speery said.
“Yes,” Betty replied.
Speery turned her off.