By Maggie Nerz Iribarne
Published in Issue 113, May 2023
Her body wavered with each bump and brake of the lumbering bus. Without her lost device she’d never before noticed the glowing faces lined up, lit by an army of screens. Normally she was one of those faces, but not tonight. Ahead at the front of the bus, lights blinked as the route screen computed and configured. She remembered her mother telling her once about the days when there were living drivers. Sometimes, if the driver was pleasant, which wasn’t always the case, he said good morning when you got on and good day when you got off. She thought the best thing about automation was you didn’t have to deal with anyone’s mood. Although without her device, her own had soured. She had no one to talk to, nothing to read, no games to play. She stood there, hanging on, lurching inside the darkened bus.
She guessed her stop and stepped off, aware that without her device she had no idea how to get home. She walked down one sidewalk and another, passing shaded houses oozing cool light from shrouded windows. A slow, hunched figure passed. Perhaps this person might stop, take pity on her.
“Excuse me? Mam? Sir?” she called. The shape hesitated for a moment, but increased its pace at the sound of her voice.
The third person she asked, a very old man it turned out, looked up and said, “What happened?”
“I’ve lost my device. I can’t find my house. Can you help?”
“What a travesty!” he said. “When you’re old like me you wear it around your neck!” He dangled his device, suspended from a tether. “It’s heavy. I can’t say I like it much. I don’t suppose you know your address?”
Her mind went blank. Panic seized.
“Do you have any numbers stored up there?” A craggy finger tapped at his forehead.
“No. I— ”
“Pity’s sake,” he said. “Terrible. I suppose we could call the police. There’s always that.”
He formed the numbers on his device, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
She hauled her body from the police car feeling embarrassed. The robo-cops wished her well and turned stiffly away, eyes on the road, pushing into the night.
She entered the house easily with a handprint. No greeting or notice marked her homecoming. Her parents and sister reclined in the living room, all deeply engaged in their devices.
“Mom?” she said. They used to speak to each other more, especially when she and Kelly 2 were small. Since then conversations lessened, like water down a drain. There was just nothing to say, in real life. It had never bothered her before.
“Dad? Kelly? Hello?”
No one seemed to recognize her voice, a human voice, any voice.
Finally the dog, Howie, scampered up. She reached for his fur. “Hey, boy. You know I was late, you missed me.” She lowered herself down beside him on the floor. His desperate tongue tickled her face. Why do we even have a living dog? she wondered. She usually ignored the mutt, but tonight she felt deeply appreciative.
Navigating the house was difficult. She bumped into the minimal furniture, her hands groping for corners and edges. In the kitchen, she managed to get to the refrigerator whose light exposed stacks of the family’s meals tucked inside. Her own dinner meal, marked with her name, Kelly 1, remained uneaten. She retrieved a few carrot sticks, munching as she proceeded to the den. There she reached, feeling for a book, finding only the flat cold surface of paper. Pictures of books lined the walls.
In the bathroom, she observed her shadowed face in the mirror. She hadn’t thought about her true looks for so long. Had she really at one time known she possessed a head full of blonde hair, a round face? Real looks didn’t matter when there were so many other images to choose from. She smiled and frowned, just barely able to make out her expressions.
Beside her mother’s bed, she rummaged through a drawer, hoping she’d find some kind of light source. Her hand touched a thin paper. She pocketed it and groped her way to the kitchen, squinted in the refrigerator’s glaring light, identified the object: a printed picture of an old man, perhaps her grandfather, holding a long pole beside water. He smiled at the camera. She sucked in her breath, clutched the photo to her chest.
Howie trailed her as she stumbled onto the street. Running, she followed the sounds of a busier road in the distance. She ran and ran, arms pumping at her sides, the evening air cooling her overheated body. She ran, knowing there must be an edge, an end, an entrance. Somewhere, something, someone must be living, truly alive. She’d keep going until she found it.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, lives in Syracuse, NY, writes about witches, cleaning ladies, struggling teachers, neighborhood ghosts, and other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work on her website.
This is Maggie’s debut in Birdy. Keep your eyes peeled for more future work in our pages by this talented writer.