by Natalie J E Potts
A red warning flashed up on the wall-screen, reminding Lucas to blink. "Close," he whispered to minimize the message. He continued to gaze at the screen as it generated three dimensional graphs of increasing complexity.
He forgot to blink.
Despite being well past eleven in the morning, the curtains were drawn. A single low-energy, solar spectrum bulb barely lit the room and led to the production of just enough vitamin D to stop Lucas's bones from going soft. He slurped loudly on his breakfast-coffee as he worked.
Lucas frowned as he mistook the noise for a new warning from his computer. "Check systems" he said softly. The computer did not need him to speak at any great volume, so he saw no reason to tax his vocal cords. The machine obliged with a diagnostics screen and everything looked clear.
It was only after the door-bell rang for the second time that he realized the true origin of the sound.
Lucas sat up at his desk and stopped chewing on his breakfast. A wayward Goody-O dropped from his lip and clung momentarily to his sweat-stained singlet before falling to the floor where it was lost to the mess of the last four weeks since the vacuum-bot was last let out of its box.
Burrrrrr-ing! The doorbell demanded again.
Lucas relaxed back into his chair and pulled the drawstring on his flannelette pants a little tighter, securing them around his wide girth. He swirled his Goody-Os in his oversized coffee cup, and watched as the warm coffee slowly overcame the last of the four-grain rings, sending them to the depths of the mug.
Burrrrrrrrrrrrrriing! The person at the door refused to give up.
Lucas scratched idly at a scabby piece of skin behind his ear. He ignored the flakes of dandruff that floated down, landing on his shoulders, his desk and in his cup.
"Mr. Matthews, I know you are home," a voice came over the home intercom. "I have access rights. If you don't voluntarily let me in I can override your security system."
Lucas did not move. He eyed the curtains as if he could see through them to the trouble standing on his doorstep.
"I would rather you let me in, Mr. Matthews," the voice insisted. "It would look good for the report."
That hit a nerve.
"Sleep" Lucas said quietly; the picture on his screen cracked and fell away like a smashed window, leaving a blank wall. He stood up from the chair, both knees popping, and walked the five steps from his desk to the front door.
The small screen mounted in the wall showed a well-groomed man in a carefully tailored suit. Lucas pressed his thumb to the worn scan panel and unlocked the door, letting in a bright wedge of natural light into the small, musty hallway.
"Lucas!" the man in the suit said, his Mr. Matthews formality dropped now that he had been granted willful admission. "It is good to see you again."
"Weren't you here just last week?" Lucas said, not stepping back from the door.
"No, Lucas, it's been a month already." He smiled a strained grin. "Tuesday, April 5 was my last visit."
Lucas knew there was no point arguing the point, so he turned and walked away, letting the man decide if he wanted to enter or not. When the fiery brightness of the day was locked out Lucas was a little disheartened to hear footsteps coming up behind him.
"You want a drink or something?" Lucas offered half-heartedly.
"No thanks, just a chat would be good." The cheer in the man's voice was saccharin, bringing out an irrational desire in Lucas to hit something. He pushed the feeling down.
They sat in the only two chairs in the dark lounge room, facing each other. Lucas hunched in his seat, staring at the man, challenging him to speak first. The tailored, pinstriped suit sat cool and relaxed on the pizza-stained upholstery, not fazed by the filth or the evil eye he was receiving.
"So how have you been since our last visit?" the man in the suit asked.
"Just working, you know, making a living, being a good contributor to society." Lucas idly picked at a brown smear that had hardened on the armrest. "Look, you were here last week, I haven't really had a chance to do much since then."
"Lucas, it's been a month, I told you that when you let me in."
Lucas did not react.
"Do you remember me telling you that?"
It was not a question, it was a test. Lucas stayed silent, his eyes narrowing slightly.
"Lucas, can you remember who I am?"
The man in the suit pulled out his smile-mask again, but the action going on behind his eyes could not be hidden. "The angel of death," he said with a nod. "I can see you have not lost your sense of humor. No, Lucas, my name is Marshall, Marshall Benson, and I have been your sociability counselor for nearly five years now. I have been provided by..."
"By Angus and Tremorn Associates, my corporate alliance and employer," Lucas finished. "You give me the same spiel every time you visit." Lucas tapped his head. "You think I'm empty up here or something?"
Marshall watched him hungrily, as if looking for scraps of truth. Lucas was careful to be inscrutable. Profound social memory loss was a Worksafe issue; he did not want to be suspended, paid leave wasn't in his contract. Marshall appeared to give up on his search, raising his eyebrows briefly before he went back to the beginning of his checklist.
"So, what have you been up to since I was here last month? Have you seen anyone outside your house?"
"Look, I've got hundreds of friends. I interact with people every day. I don't need these stupid visits to make sure I'm not becoming a nutcase."
"Lucas, you send nearly 300 emails a day and yet we have only seven recorded phone conversations with your colleagues in the last month." Marshall was looking at him as if he expected Lucas to say something. "Don't you think it's odd that you don't actually speak to your workmates very often?"
"I'm in customer service, not colleague service. I don't need to talk to my work mates," Lucas said, crossing his arms to make his point.
"Lucas, you received three client calls in the last month, and you told one of them he was a dick-head."
Lucas hated the way Marshall could always rattle off statistics about him off the top of his head. It made Lucas feel like a lab rat under study. "You're wrong," Lucas said confidently.
"I'm quite sure that I'm not. We have the official paperwork for the complaint and the transcript clearly shows that you did, indeed, call the man a dick-head, as he asserted in his complaint."
"I didn't mean you were wrong about that," Lucas said with a smirk. "I meant that of the three I actually called all three dick-heads, not just one. If it helps, I can assure you that I didn't do it flippantly. You must remember that these are the people who make us look good in the bell curve." Lucas wondered if his pearls of wisdom were being wasted on the man. "They still look for USB ports in their computers. They are simply..." Lucas tried to search for the right word. "Well... Dick-heads," he said with a shrug. "Lucky for me the complaints process is more frustrating and upsetting than anything I'll ever do. I find most of the time it usually works out in my favor."
Marshall failed to see the humorous side. There was no hint of his ever-present smile. "You must see that this is not the message that Angus and Tremorn Associates want to be sending to their clients."
"Can I ask you a question, Mr. Matthews?"
"Is there anything I could say to stop you?"
Marshall ignored him. "You appear to have a little bit of an attitude problem. Your house smells like an animal has both lived and died in here, your breath has the potency of tear gas and you are wearing your pajamas despite the fact that it is nearly lunchtime. Is this really how you want to live your life?"
Lucas took a moment to realize the question had ended. He had lost concentration somewhere around the animal part, it was only the inflection at the end of Marshall's last sentence and the subsequent silence which hinted that a response was expected. "What is your point, Mr. Marshall?" Lucas said.
"Mr. Benson, Lucas. My surname is Benson, Marshall is my first name."
Lucas could almost see the black mark being placed against his name.
"My point, Lucas, is that I am a social assessor and you seem to be failing quite dismally, despite all my attempts to help you. Should we talk about the government partner placement scheme?"
"What, where the government finds some crazy bitch who can't get a boyfriend, so you lock her up in here with me?" Lucas scratched at the scaly part of his scalp again before shaking his head, sending storms of dandruff onto the furniture. "Stupidest idea if I've ever heard of."
"It has been proven to assist with sociability skills. Lucas, if nothing else, as soon as you get a passing visitation score, my visits will decrease in their frequency. And the partner placement program has been found to significantly improve sociability standing in most cases."
"Look, sociability is not real high on my list of priorities, so let's just give up on..."
"Social Wellbeing was part of your employment package. It is what puts Angus and Tremorn Associates into the top ten employers in their field nine out of every ten years."
"Marshall, I didn't join for their so-cia-bility package, I joined for the massive credits I get paid. I don't give a shit how social my life is as long as I can buy what I want, when I want it."
"And would it be too much of a stretch to buy some daytime clothes? Or are you content to sit around in pajamas all day?" the judgment was not even remotely hidden.
Lucas looked down at his flannelette pants and pulled at the drawstring around his waist. "These are not pajamas, they are comfort work trousers. That's the name they were sold under, and I bought five pairs..."
"Online," Marshall interjected.
"Yes, I bought five pairs, online as it happens, but I actually sleep buck naked. So you can see that these are clearly not my night attire."
"Lucas, isn't it true that you buy everything online?"
"Along with 99% of the population. If you haven't noticed, it's cheaper and easier."
Marshall shook his head and looked down at his feet briefly, almost as if he were afraid that something might be about to crawl off the carpet and onto his buffed leather shoes. He looked up again, weariness in his eyes. "Lucas, we are getting off the topic, we need to talk about the partner placement program."
"Well, that's a quick conversation. I'm not going to do it, so you'll have to hatch some other crackpot plan to make me a more sociable individual. I am not going to live with some loser woman who..." Lucas stopped talking. With all the things that he had said to Marshall over the years nothing yet had managed to have as much impact as his last two sentences. The shock on the suited man's face made Lucas wonder if he was having some kind of episode. "Are you alright? Should I be waving an ambulance or something?"
"Lucas, I signed you up for the placement program four months ago."
"Never mind, I'm sure it's not too late to cancel." The appalled look was not leaving Marshall's eyes, if anything it was getting worse. It was starting to scare Lucas. "Truly, mate, it's no big deal..."
"Lucas, does the name Meredith Boyd mean anything to you?
Lucas had no idea what game Marshall was playing at, so he went with his standard answer: "It sounds familiar, but I'm not sure from where..."
"She's the woman who was assigned to you on the partner placement program."
Lucas shrugged his shoulders, sticking out his bottom lip, adding a little shake of his head to underscore his lack of recognition.
"She's the woman who moved in with you a month ago."
Marshall ran his hand over his face as if to wipe away any expression he might have let slip onto his features. He leaned forward and spoke slowly. "Lucas, is Meredith still here?" The fear in his voice was palpable.
"I don't know who the hell you are talking about! There is no one living here but me!" Lucas stood up so quickly that his comfort work pants could not keep up, exposing his long forgotten manhood. He had apparently neglected to remember underwear that morning. He bobbed down and pulled up his pants, securing the drawstring with a double-knot that he would need to cut off later. "You are the one who is confused, Mr. Marshall, not me!"
A sniff from the darkness of the hall made both men turn. A woman watched them from the shadows, apparently drawn out by the conversation. The flicker of the computer screen in the room behind her highlighted the roundness of her figure.
"Meredith?" Marshall asked hesitantly.
The woman stepped into the dim light of the lounge room. Burst capillaries flushed in her translucent cheeks. The taut skin looked as frail as tissue paper. Everything about her sagged as she waddled in from the hall; she was a poster child for the evils of rickets. It took Lucas a moment to realize her mouth was silently working at words they couldn't hear.
"Meredith," Marshall stood up "Meredith, you're not in front of you computer now, you'll have to use your voice as well so we can understand."
Meredith's lips started working busily on a tirade of silent woes. She was clearly getting frustrated. Her bowed legs began to quiver as if they would not be able to hold her weight much longer.
Lucas turned back to Marshall. "Well this looks like it was a great success!"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Marshall asked tersely as he ran to Meredith's side.
Neither willing nor able to hold back his sniggers as the well dressed man struggled under the woman's weight, Lucas slapped his hand against his leg with amusement. "If this is who the government thinks I should be set up with, then I really must have a problem!"
"Get out of the way," Marshall growled, walking Meredith towards the door. "Come with me, Meredith, I think we need to get someone to have a look at you."
Lucas followed them outside, wincing slightly at the pain as his pupils contracted sharply. So blinded by the reflection from the metallic blue transporter, he missed out on the entertainment of watching Marshall load the woman into the car. Lucas noticed that Marshall was about to climb in as well.
"Eh!" Lucas called. "Marshall, see you again next month?"
Marshall shot him a withering look and simply got into the transporter without comment. Lucas walked out a little further onto the road to watch the little machine drive off. After a few moments he found himself standing in the front yard developing the first signs of sunburn and no idea what he was doing out there.
He went back to the units, unsuccessfully tried to scan himself into two units that weren't his, before he saw the open door of his little piece of suburbia. Even after he closed the door and locked the day out again, he could still smell himself. He looked down at the comfort work trousers and noticed the patches of brown on them that he was sure were not part of the original pattern.
With the help of a pair of scissors, he freed himself from the pants and stood, naked from the waist down, looking into his cupboard. There were three things hanging in the wardrobe and none of them appealed, his draws presented more comfort work pants, but seemed strangely bereft of underwear. Down the back of the draw something caught his eye.
Even when he had bought them, nearly ten years ago, the jeans had been tight. Now he could get them on, but the zip threatened to change his religion if he insisted on doing it up. The button would never consummate its relationship with the other side of the fly, at least not while Lucas was wearing them. He felt strange in the tight, heavy material and as the denim rubbed with unfamiliarity on his thighs, Lucas started to smile.
"On!" He said out loud, sitting down in front of his computer. "Piquo." Instantly the screen obliged, bringing up the instant messaging program. "Am wearing outside pants. They pinch!" Lucas said, before sending the message out into the cyber-space.
Moments later a Piquo reader pique popped up. It was the familiar pink kitten avatar of SXY Merry, a girl Lucas had been cyber-flirting with for months. He felt his cheeks flush and his jeans started to pinch even more around the groin.
Her Piquo came through: "Good for you SKIWALKR. But I can beat that; I'm actually OUTSIDE in a bright blue transporter! Boy these things go fast!"
© 2010 Natalie J E Potts
Bio: Natalie J E Potts has previously been published in Australian and the US in such magazines as Antipodean SF, Aurealis, Midnight Echo, Black Box, Kaleidotrope and of course, Aphelion (The Best Laid Plans, November, 2006). She is currently working on my novel, but every now and then a short story sneaks up on her that she has to set free so it will leave her in peace. To read more of her work, visit her website, Natalie J E Potts.
E-mail: Natalie J E Potts
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