A short story by Luke Sweeney
Leon’s holophone sounded like a siren. Missing the call would trigger a warrant for his arrest. He tapped the screen. The holophone projected a light with floating bits like moths swirling inside. The pixelated glow came into focus and took on the shape and color of a middle-aged man sitting with his legs crossed, his eyes both dead and too-alert.
Leon swirled the ice in his whiskey. The hologram reminded Leon of the TV commercials he’d seen. In the old woman’s living room the shrink bot leans in and smiles, “Your life still has worth, Joan. If you want your family to call you should ask them.” The woman nods, cries, reaches for an old rotary dial phone.
“Can I call you Leon?”
“I’m Howard, or some prefer Dr Howard which is fine.”
“They named you?”
“An engineer at Auxilium. I assume you know why we’re here. The court has ordered outpatient treatment and curative supervision for the next 60 days. Could be longer of course, depending.”
“Is that alcohol? Should we start there?”
Leon put the glass back on the kitchen counter too quickly and the whiskey spilled on the tile floor.
“You’re not supposed to be drinking during the probationary period.”
Leon looked around the kitchen, taking inventory. “Do you report back to the court?”
“Patient confidentiality still applies in most cases.” Dr Howard’s lips mimicked a paternalistic grin. “But yes I do submit a report after the 60 days.”
“Can’t they just open you up and listen? Or watch the tape?”
“I don’t record anything. I reflect on what’s been said but it’s encrypted. That was a sticking point with Auxilium.”
Dr Howard blinked. “Do you have any other questions you’d like to get out
“What were you doing before this?”
“Your case has top priority for me but I also provide end-of-life care.”
Leon threw his head back and cackled. He held up a finger and quoted from
the TV commercial, “Swing classes? That’s a marvelous idea!”
“That’s senior companionship. I’m talking about palliative care. End-of-life services is for when death is close. No-one is taking swing classes. Do you want to talk about what put you in crisis?”
“Why do you say I was in crisis?”
“All your readings spiked.”
Leon rubbed the patch on his arm. After it stopped itching he’d forgotten it was there. It would come off in 30 days. Could be longer, depending.
Leon was at the school board meeting to pitch the idea of spending too much money to send his class to Washington DC for three days. “Critical engagement” was the phrase he used, like a nervous tic.
The board members looked at the handout he’d given them figuring out ways to say no.
When the meeting adjourned, Leon walked over to the coffee machine and pushed out a cup of steaming black liquid. He turned around to find a woman looking at him. She was a mother he could tell, and aggrieved. He sidestepped to the tray of creamer.
“Am I in your way?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry you didn’t get your money. The trip sounded like fun.”
“It was a long shot, but I had to try. When the board says no you don’t have to feel guilty about giving up.”
She had a pinhole scar on her nostril and another through her eyebrow, old piercings. Running up both her arms were purple bruises yellowing at the edges. She caught him staring. “My son was having a hard day,” she said, touching an arm.
“His teachers won’t accommodate him. I don’t even care about the IEP any more. I would settle for ‘do no harm’.” She turned to watch the board members leave the building. “That
crew...” She rolled her eyes.
“Can I ask which school?”
“The one with the idiot principal.”
“I think I know the one.”
They walked to the parking lot together. Leon waited for her to ask him for advice or maybe some dirt on faculty, but it never came. He feigned expertise in school politics to chat over drinks at the tavern across the street, a tactic so disingenuous it surprised even him.
Her name was Natali. She hung her purse on the chair and ordered a whiskey.
As she spoke he studied her face. She had a dispassionate expression belied by her presence at the board meeting.
“They don’t understand that screaming at a kid with autism isn’t going to get him to do what they want. The principal talks a good game but nothing changes. My son comes home with dried vomit on his shirt.”
Leon made a point to nurse his drink but the mammoth ice cube tricked him and he downed his whiskey in three gulps.
They both ordered more whiskeys. He offered advice where he could but teaching had burned him out and he said as much. Securing content approval from parents for his lessons
was exhausting. She did part-time design work from home, prettying-up interfaces.
If she was worried about going home late and smelling of alcohol, she didn’t show it. They split the bill. In the swollen air of mid-summer he walked her to her car. She gripped his
hand for a second, thanking him.
He returned to an empty house. Evelyn was working her shift at the oncology ward. They were ships in the night and had been for years. Still no kids.
His holophone buzzed. He and Natali had been in close proximity for over an hour and it triggered the automated contact exchange. She’d accepted it.
Leon tapped the screen and saw her photo and the details underneath:
Natali Murino, 32, Eastland, New Hampshire.
They met again at the next school board meeting. While they were waiting for the latecomers to file in they decided to go for a drive instead.
They rolled down the windows and she sailed her hand in the wind. Leon produced a flask and handed it to her. She took it coolly, sniffed the mouth, and tipped it back. They didn’t talk
until the flask was half empty.
She asked him about a day in the life of a teacher. His impressions of the parents got her laughing.
He drove to the edge of the small city and parked at the crest of a hill overlooking the resurrected drive-in theater. A lake of cars was bathed in the milky light of the screen. It was
too far away to see the movie clearly. “It’s kind of eerie,” she said, passing the flask. Leon had to piss badly but didn’t want to disrupt the moment. She touched his hand and stopped at his ring, tapping it gently. “What’s the story with this?”
“She’s at work,” he said. “We don’t interact much.”
He nodded, and they watched the actress on the faraway screen throw a drink in a man’s face.
They drove back to the school parking lot. He waited for her to make a move, wishing he’d brought more than one flask. “I’m in a partnership,” she said. “That sums it up.” She opened the door and got out. “See you.”
At their next meetup Natali knocked on the car window and laughed, “Did you think it was the
She got in the car and opened the glove compartment, finding the flask. “I know your tricks,” she said, taking a swig. It was happening before Leon realized, their mouths touching, her
hand clasping the back of his neck. “Should we go somewhere else?”
He drove to a strip mall and pulled around behind it. The lane was empty except for dumpsters and a parked car three stores down. Leon swept folders and notebooks off the back seat. She slid in next to him, her face serious.
They fell into each other. He felt her unfamiliar contours. She moved differently. After so many years he’d assumed he understood what this was but now it was this whole other thing.
They opened the windows for some air. The noises of a summer night were louder, clanging trash cans, a car horn, the chatter between two stripmall cooks out of sight.
She leaned back against the window and he noticed a pendant in the dip between her collar bones. “What is that?” he asked.
She took it off and handed it to him. It was oblong shaped and silver. “Rub the back,” she said. “Clockwise.”
The face of the pendant changed entirely, a bloom of light and a minuscule movie of a girl about six riding a bike, one training wheel off the ground, her purple helmet askew.
She turns around to wave.
“This is you.”
“Oh.” She looked away. “My first bike. There are a bunch of those.”
The movie changes to a skinny-armed Natali at a rock concert. The old piercings are there. “I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Doesn’t it play on a continuous loop?”
“Forever, if you let it,” she said. “But it changes the order every time. You sync it with everything you’ve ever had on your profile.”
“Everything but the nudes.”
“So, in theory, it would eventually show your whole life back to you.”
He handed it back. “There’s more,” she said. She fished through the clothes at her feet and pulled out her holophone. Tapping on the camera she leaned into him, wrapped one
arm around his shoulder, and filmed herself kissing his cheek.
“Now watch.” Natali held out the pendant. An old birthday party changed suddenly to their bare embrace from seconds ago. His timid smile, messy hair.
“Now you’re in here,” she said.
He reached for the flask. “Is that a good idea?”
“It’s three seconds in thousands of hours.” She rubbed his back. “I’ll take those odds.”
They took a long meandering drive around the edge of town. She pointed out the house where she grew up and the path to a little-known swimming hole nearby, an offshoot of the river.
Leon said he’d like to see it. “Do we have to wait two weeks?”
“No,” she said, “Let’s not do that.”
Natali chose the next meeting spot, a baseball field. She pulled up next to his car and busied herself with the computer on the dash. Then she got out and opened his door. “Hey,” she said, peering in.
They drove to the swimming hole by her old house. He followed her down the path and twice tripped on the worn knuckles of tree roots. The crickets sang a wall of sound.
They reached a lagoon with an island in the middle. A white bikini hung from a tree like an old kite. Leon laughed and they undressed under a full moon. Against the black thickets she was another moon, all pale fissures and bruises and tattoos eclipsing one another.
Natali stepped into the lake, hands out as if balancing on a tight-wire. He followed in her rippling wake and they settled in the cool water, refreshing against the muggy air. They
swam out to the island. Whenever he closed in on her she flitted away as if