Bill has had a small chip in his brain for as long as he can remember. Her name is Jeanette, his friend, his only friend. The only person he has ever needed. Her presence is his constant. She is a part of him, to an extent that even he doesn’t understand.
By Arnav Rathee
The day started cold, but Jeanette solved that. A warm smile in the morning, a bright laugh, and a gentle electrical nudge to the heart that slowly encouraged Bill’s body temperature to rise, that was enough. The day was bright. It brought the sun and the sun was his invitation outside. Jeanette never made breakfast, but her conversation made breakfast a joy, rather than a chore, reheating canned coffee grounds and scrambling his way through the last of a carton of eggs.
“So, how was your sleep?”
“You should know. You were there. Always watching.”
She chuckled. Her chuckle made him smile. He was of the mind that anything she did would make him smile.
“You’re making me sound creepy!” she laughed. “I’m not watching, I’m monitoring.”
“Uh huh,” he grinned. “Nothing I can do either way, can I? Can’t drill you out of my skull.”
He would slam his hand on the counter, his eyes full of counterfeit fire, his massive smile betraying him. “Tell me, is any of this real, robot?”
She never answered the question.
“Come on, eat, so you can go to work.”
“Always keeping me responsible, huh?”
And so it went on, their friendly joust of words, until breakfast was consumed and work called. It called with a wail, typically the sound of food missing from the fridge and an empty icebox, which meant that it was to the outside, the true outside, not simply out of the bedroom but out of the house, that Bill went, and Jeanette followed.
Bill was a garbage collector. From each lawn, each trash can, each curb, he collected. Occasionally, he would find something useful. A rusted pipe, or a jug that would make well for collecting water. He kept those. The rest was dumped where all the trash went, in the pit down the road.
Rarer were the grail-finds. The sleeves of rolls, halves of small cakes. Once he found a can of pineapple, drenched in a sugar syrup. He had picked it up with a kind of incredulous anger. Waste. A waste. Even Jeanette was silent as he pried the top off, watching the glistening syrup drip from an over-tight seal. Jeanette couldn’t have tricked his tongue into thinking it was any more decadent than it was.
He had stretched that can for three weeks, in the hopes of finding another. Each day he checked the same area, looking for some sign of a blue wrapping and the dull chrome of preserved fruit.
The neighbors, of course, didn’t mind. They would be found in their doorways, waving to him as he stole away their detritus. The Joneses, Mr. Ruby, Bonnie Corso and her feral dog, they were all perfectly content to have Bill make away with everything on their property.
There was a school, as well. He supposed he had attended it, back when he had dreams of being something other than a garbage collector. He passed it each time he left his home, watched the faded letters on its signboard trudge by as he left it in the dust. An M, followed by a V, H and S that sat in front of a school that always seemed empty. He had to assume that the students were simply in class.
That was what Jeanette said, anyway.
He had tried collecting from the school. Once, he had found a good number of rock-hard buns, which served better as a makeshift stool, when packed in a sack, than as food.
He never went again, after that. There was a raw, rotten smell, like the odor of crushed dreams, that seemed to permeate every building, every inch of linoleum flooring and mottled brick wall.
That particular day he had passed the school quickly, moving down the street and picking up almost everything he could see. He had it all in a small pack slung around his shoulder, and its weight built with each house he stopped at, each wooden dowel, bottlecap, or spatula he plunged into its shallow depths. In no time he was hunched over, his prize riding him like a pack mule. Jeanette spoke to him, talking small steps to stay in line.
“What was that last thing?” she asked.
“Spoon,” he grunted, “Good one.”
“Another spoon? You’ve got twelve already. Why not… look, there, a fork. I can think of a lot of things that you could do with a fork, Bill.”
She could have made him believe it. It was entirely within her power. Bill knew. She knew. But she didn’t.
He choked a laugh. “You’re advocating for a kitchen utensil.”
But he turned. There were many things he could do with a fork. Jeanette grinned, running to the chosen tool with glee. He tried to follow, slowly picking up speed.
It was then that he fell, his spine buckling under the weight of an overfilled pack. His scalp hit the asphalt first, grating against the crumbly pseudo-stone. He painted it with his blood and the asphalt returned the favor with pain, immense and spiky, as if he had taken a nail to the head rather than falling.
Jeanette was there in an instant, and while his ears rang, he could hear her clearly. She whispered to him silent kindnesses, taking control, numbing his nerves and silencing the screams in his head with a dose of endorphins. “Don’t stress yourself,” she said. “It’ll hurt again.”
“I’m fine. Thanks,” he said through gritted teeth, slinging his pack over his shoulders and beginning to trudge forward. Jeanette followed.
He had taken five steps when the sky changed and Jeanette disappeared. The sun was there one moment and the next was gone, taken by clouds of smoke and the smell of embers that was far too powerful for Bill to believe could have simply appeared.
The rows of homes that had previously sat on either side were suddenly rows of flame and ash, and their crackling was loud, far too loud.
The pain was back as well, and it crashed into his skull with each incredulous step that he took, his breathing hampered by smoke and panic.
“Jeanette,” he whispered, “Jeanette,” he said, “Jeanette,” he cried, “Jeanette!” he screeched. Jeanette did not answer.
He moved against his own will, every scream of fire behind him compelling him forward to another. The passage of time was inscrutable, each moment marked rather by another remnant of the unknown destruction that he found himself in the midst of: the melted husk of a car, burning lawn chairs, and occasionally, a corpse, covered in burns or devoid of flesh entirely, simply a heap of bones.
It was him and him alone in his eternity of brimstone. His pack was gone; he had dropped it long ago, and Jeanette had never heeded his call. He wept twice or thrice, but the tears evaporated in the heat, and the fourth time, simply did not come.
And then the sky returned. The pack returned, and the sadness and horror and pain disappeared in an instant and there was nothing but clean, simple apathy again.
Jeanette appeared as well. She shook her head. “I… I seem to have shut down for a moment there. Are you okay?”
Bill was fine. He didn’t feel quite perfect, but that feeling was already fading, his muscles destressing against the faint bit of will that hadn’t been drowned out by dopamine and natural painkillers.
“I’m all right.”
“Well, that’s good.”
He grinned, picked up his pack, and began to walk.
“Thank God for you, Jeanette.”