Caregiver by Bruce Golden
It moved with even certainty through the labyrinth, down long, dim corridors fed by uniform passageways, each artery branching out to its own finality. It passed row after row, cluster upon cluster of marginalized cubicles, adroitly avoiding other busy caregivers going about their tasks with stoic competency. Their activities were not its concern. Its objective was still ahead, its function yet to be engaged. The muffled resonance of efficiency was momentarily fractured by a caterwaul that resounded with frantic vigor. The plaintive cry did not cause it to break stride. This was not its designated ward. It continued, secure that proper care would be provided where needed.
Though it had never traversed this particular annex, it was familiar with every aspect of the structure’s design. A three-dimensional imaging model embedded in its memory enabled it to proceed unerringly to its assigned section. Once there, it would fulfill its charge until relieved. The notion of responsibility, the promise of ordered ritual, of unadulterated routine provided impetus to its progress through the repository. Fulfillment of its programming was imminent.
Promptly, upon entering its first appointed room, it conducted a visual examination. The resident was not in her bed, but standing near the cubicle’s lone window, her back to the entryway. Although unusual, her upright position was not immediate cause for concern. It noted her posture was hunched, based on normal human physiology, and her form withered to a degree attesting to extreme age, disabling disease, or both.
“I’m too damn crooked to even see outside,” the woman muttered, as she strained to force her head high enough to look through the modest pane.
It checked the medic monitor, noting that all vital signs were within normal parameters, then located the medical history file and inserted the disk for scan, as it did for each of its residents. As the file was processed into its memory, the woman turned slowly, gingerly, as if fearful her limbs might give way.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“My designation is Automated Caregiver O N 1 2 dash 1 8 dash 2 8.”
“That’s a sorry mouthful,” she said contentiously.
“I have been assigned to your care.”
She scrutinized its form before responding, “You’re not the same as the last one. It couldn’t say more than a couple of words.”
“The design of your previous caregiver was determined to be obsolete. A progressive replacement of all such models has commenced throughout the facility.”
“That so?” she said, leaning against her bed for support. “It was old and useless, so you shut it off, boxed it up, and put it away in a room somewhere, huh?”
“I was not informed as to its disposition.”
“Of course you weren’t,” she cackled. “They don’t want you to know what’s going to happen when you’re obsolete.”
“Ellen Reiner, 87-year old female,” it summarized aloud, “with diagnosis of extreme rheumatoid arthritis in conjunction with aggregate osteoporosis and–”
“Hey, you! Don’t you know it’s not polite to talk about someone like they’re not even there, standing right in front of you?” The outburst exacerbated her already apparent exhaustion, prompting her to sit on the bed. “I think I want my old tin can back. At least he was quiet.”
“Ms. Reiner, you are not supposed to stand without assistance. In the future–”
“I’ll damn well stand whenever I please. And nobody calls me ‘Ms. Reiner.’ My name’s Ellen.”
“Very well, Ellen. Why were you out of your bed? Is there something I can get for you?”
“I was trying to see the leaves. It’s autumn, isn’t it? They must be turning about now. I wanted to look out and see them, but the damn window is too high. I can’t straighten up enough to see.”
“I am sorry you cannot see outside. However, most of the rooms in this repository have no window at all.”
“So what? So I should be thankful?”
It had no response. Instead it reached down and pulled back the bed coverings. “May I help you lie down?”
“No, thanks. I can do it myself.”
It observed patiently as she eased herself by stuttered stages into a supine position, the effort not without manifest signs of pain. Once she settled, it reached down and pulled the bed coverings up over her, noticing that, as it did, she continued to examine its exterior composition.
“You don’t look like the last one. You look almost human. What are you? A robot? An android?”
“I am an automated caregiver, model O N 1 2 dash 1 8–”
“Yeah, yeah. I heard you the first time. Okay, O N 1 2 dash whatever. I’ll just call you Owen. How about that?”
“If you wish. I must proceed to input and verify my other assigned residents. Do you desire anything before I withdraw?”
“Yeah,” she said with a calm that belied her hostile glare. “I want my body back. The one that could go for a walk. The one that could play ball with my grandson. The one I could stomach to look at in the mirror. Can you get that for me? I’ll wait right here while you go find it.”
“I am sorry, Ellen. I–”
“Never mind. Forget it.” She turned her head away. “Go on. Leave. Go help someone else.”
It stood there a moment, analyzing the situation, attempting to ascertain the resident’s demeanor and determine if additional action was required before vacating the room. Humans were complex creatures, but so was its programming. It took only four-point-five seconds for it to formulate a resolution, turn, and vacate the room.
It deposited the soiled sheets into the laundry receptacle and moved on to the next cubicle, a routine that modified and enhanced its original programming. Though few of its residents were coherent, its acquaintance with their various idiosyncrasies and predilections was an essential element of that enhancement.
It considered this as it proceeded to room 1928, but halted outside the entry when it heard a voice. Did resident Ellen Reiner have a visitor? No visitations were scheduled, though on rare occasions they occurred without notice. It remained outside the room and listened.
“Why? Why me?” It sounded not so much a question as a tearful plea. “I don’t understand. Why, God? Why?”
It heard no other voices and determined she was simply talking to herself, as many isolated residents were inclined to do. It entered, carrying its hygienic provisions, and moved to the bed’s right side.
“Good afternoon, Ellen. How are you today?”
She didn’t reply. Instead, she fumbled to take hold of a tissue which she used to clear her nasal passages.
“It is time for me to bathe you.”
“I don’t want to. Go away.”
“You know you must be cleaned. I can take you to the shower room, or I can do it here.”
“I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to touch me.”
It searched its databanks for the proper situational response. “I do not understand your reluctance, Ellen. I know your previous caregiver bathed you at the proper intervals.”
She turned away from him. “I don’t want you to see me. My body’s so…it’s so…”
“Your previous caregiver saw your body many times. I fail to comprehend your–”
“It’s different. You’re different. He was like a machine, you’re…”
“I am also a machine, Ellen. I am an automated caregiver.”
She didn’t respond.
“I promise to be gentle. Let me remove the bed coverings.”
She acquiesced, although she kept her face turned away.
It took a moment to evaluate its observations. Situations in which the resident was uncomfortable could often be mitigated by conversation. So it accessed its creative response program. In doing so, it conducted a visual search of the room, marking the photographic representations above the bed.
“Is that you in the photographs, Ellen?” it asked, pulling the shift up above her waist and beginning to wipe her clean.
“Yeah,” she said, her face still turned away, staring at the bare wall. “That was me.”
“It appears you were a performer of some kind.”
“Dancer. I was a dancer,” she said irritably. “Not that you’d ever know it by looking at me now.”
“That is very interesting. How did you become a dancer?”
“I just liked to dance, that’s all.”
“In the black and white photograph, the one where you are surrounded by other dancers, you look very young.”
Ellen turned her face, angling to look up at the photo. “That’s when I was on American Bandstand, an old TV show. I was just a kid.”
“Were you a professional dancer?”
“Later I was, when I moved to New York.” She chuckled at some private recollection. “For a time, I was what they called a ‘go-go dancer.’ I worked at some real dives to put myself through dance school. Places like Rocky’s and The Gull’s Inn…those were the days.”
It observed the conversation was indeed distracting her from its ministrations, so it pursued the topic.
“I did not realize they had schools for dancing.”
“Sure they do. I studied for a long time with Hanya Holm. Talk about an old biddy. After that, I joined Erick Hawkins’ Modern Dance Company. We traveled all over. Of course, that was before my first marriage, before I had my son.” For a moment, she looked wistful, as if sorting through fond memories. “I didn’t dance anymore after Edward was born. At least, not professionally.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Just the one. I’ve got a grandson now and two great-grandkids. Can you believe it?”
“That’s their picture over there, with their father and mother.”
“They appear to be very healthy,” it said, not certain how to respond.
It tended to a few final details and pulled down her shift.
“I am finished now, Ellen. Do you require anything before I go?”
“All right. I will check on you later.”
She turned her face away again.
It couldn’t tell if she was looking at the photos on the wall or if she’d closed her eyes.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Ellen.”
“Hmph. What have I got to be thankful for? You tell me, Owen.”
Resident Ellen Reiner had addressed it as “Owen” for such an extended period that, in relation to her, it had begun to think of itself in that manner.
“I understand your Thanksgiving meal will be a special treat,” Owen stated, checking the medic monitor and recording the data output.
“Not likely. The food in this place tastes like mush. It’s no wonder, seeing as how it’s made by tasteless machines.”
“It is true the automated kitchen workers have no sense of taste, but I am certain they prepare your meals to the exact dietary specifications provided.”
“Yeah, specifically bland.”
“There are currently 5,397 residents quartered within Repository Carehouse 319, and the food must be prepared in a manner to accommodate everyone.”
“Yeah, well a little spice now and then would do them good.”
“I have no doubt the sustenance provided complies with all nutritional guidelines, Ellen. If you would like, I can–”
“Piss on nutrition! I want something that’s sweet or sour or puts a fire in my belly. Hell, I got nothing else to look forward to. You’d think I could get a decent meal every once in a while.”
Owen straightened the bed coverings, tucking in the length where necessary, and removed the bag from the bedside commode.
Ellen reached across the bed and fumbled with something.
“I can’t work the remote anymore,” she said with exasperation. “My damn hands are too deformed. There’s an old movie I wanted to watch, but I can’t select it.”
“I can do that for you. What would you like?”
“It’s Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly.”
Owen made the selection. “Is this correct?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
She stared at the screen for some time as Owen completed its duties, then spoke as if her attention were elsewhere. “I’ve had some great Thanksgiving dinners, you know. Garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing made with celery and onion and pine nuts, golden brown turkey–cooked just right so it was still moist, you understand–candied yams, cranberry sauce…” Her voice trailed off as if she were still reminiscing, but not verbalizing the memories.
“Can I get you anything, Ellen?”
“No.” Then, reconsidering, she gestured toward the remote with her gnarled fingers and said, “You could turn the volume up for me.”
Owen complied. On the video screen, as the title suggested, was a man singing and dancing through a rainstorm. Despite the meteorological circumstances and his saturated condition, he was smiling. Nothing in Owen’s programming defined the logic of it. It was the way humans were.
“I will go and let you watch your movie now.”
It was on its way out when it heard Ellen say softly, “Thanks, Owen.”
Owen’s internal alarm sounded. The medic monitor in room 1928 was summoning it. It must disregard normal routine and check on the resident’s condition immediately.
Upon entering the room, it initially failed to locate resident Ellen Reiner. It did, however, note the medic monitor was emitting its warning beep and recognized the resident’s vital signs were fluctuating dangerously. It activated its exigency video record option and located the resident on the floor next to the bed. Owen bent down next to her.
“Ellen, what happened?”
“I was trying, uhh…to see out the window,” she said weakly.
Owen evaluated her response and reactions. She was apparently in a tremendous amount of pain. “Damn legs don’t work anymore. They just collapsed right out from under me.”
“You should have called for me to help you.”
“I didn’t want to…bother you.”
“Regardless, that window is too high for you. Do you not remember?”
“I guess I forgot.”
“Do not be alarmed; I have alerted an emergency medical team. They will be here momentarily.”
“No!” she exclaimed so vehemently, her body convulsed, and she gasped in obvious pain. “I don’t want them,” she managed to whisper. “I don’t want to be saved. Just let me go. Let me be done with it.”
Owen was trying to formulate an appropriate response when the EMT, consisting of two humans and an automated assistant, rushed in. Owen moved aside as they took their places around the resident. She began crying as soon as she saw them.
“No,” she wept, “no, no.”
Owen stood there, its ceramic ocular arrays focused intently on resident Ellen Reiner. There was nothing it could do. It wasn’t programmed for medical emergency procedures.
“Looks like a broken hip,” said one of the humans. “Blood pressure’s dropping dangerously low. We’ve got to get her to surgery.”
The automated assistant distended the compact gurney it carried, and they transferred Ellen onto it as gently as they could. Still, she cried out. Whether in pain or protest, Owen could not be certain. All it could do was watch as they pushed her out and listen as her tearful cries retreated down the corridor.
When its audio receptors could no longer discern her voice, it replayed the incident video. Had it failed somehow in its duties? Could it have acted differently to prevent the injury from occurring? It listened to her words, then listened again, trying to understand.
I don’t want them. I don’t want to be saved. Just let me go. Let me be done with it.
It didn’t matter how many times Owen played the recording or how it attempted to dissect the phraseology, it still didn’t comprehend.
Three weeks and two days had passed since Owen had last gone into room 1928. There had been no reason to. Then it received notification that resident Ellen Reiner had been returned to her room. It found the notification to be welcome and accompanied by an indefinable inclination to care for her once again. However, upon seeing Owen, Ellen acted less than pleased. Her reaction, it seemed, was more akin to acrimony.
“I am glad to see you have returned, Ellen. I hope your stay in the hospital facility was pleasant.”
She failed to respond, so Owen went about its duties, but continued its attempts to engage her.
“I understand you are still recovering from your injuries and must not attempt to stand or walk again. Please inform me if you need to get out of bed, and I will provide a wheelchair.”
There was still no response, and Owen discovered her silence to be a source of agitation it could neither define nor locate within its systems.
“It will be Christmas soon. I am pleased you were able to return before the holiday. I understand members of your family will be visiting on the 24th of the month. I am certain you look forward to that.”
More silence. Then, as Owen attempted to formulate a new line of conversation, Ellen spoke up, her tone harsh and unforgiving.
“Why didn’t you just let me die?”
“What do you mean, Ellen?”
“You heard me. Why didn’t you let me die? I asked you to. I begged you.”
“You are in my charge, Ellen. I am programmed to care for you. I cannot do anything to harm you.”
“Nobody asked you to. I just asked you to leave me alone, to let me be.”
“Not calling for medical assistance when you were so seriously injured would have been the equivalent of harming you, Ellen.”
Her eyes bore into Owen with what it determined was an angry stare. A dewy film glazed over them, and her tone altered. It was more pleading than demanding, and several times, the cadence of her voice broke with emotion.
“You should have let me die, Owen. That’s what I wanted. I’m not really alive anyway. What kind of life is this? I’m just waiting around…waiting to die. That’s all anyone in this place is doing. This is just death’s waiting room, don’t you know that?”
She sobbed once and seemed to physically gather herself, reining in her emotions.
“Hell, they shoot horses don’t they?”
“Animals. They treat animals more humanely than they do people.”
Owen didn’t respond. It was occupied, trying to comprehend what she had said. The word humanely was not incorporated into its vocabulary, but its root contained the word human. Did it mean to be treated as a human? If so, why would horses be treated as humans more than humans?
“It’s the bureaucrats and the moralists. They’re the ones keeping me alive. Them and those who own this carehouse, who own you, Owen. All they really care about is collecting their compensation. I’m just a source of income, a husk defined by profit motive. They’ve taken the choice away from me. But it’s my choice,” she said, pockets of moisture now evident under her eyes, “not theirs.”
Ceasing its work, Owen stood listening, trying to reconcile its programming with what she was saying.
“I am sorry, Ellen. I am sorry you are so unhappy.”
“It’s not your fault, Owen.” She reached out and touched his exterior. “It’s not your fault.”
Despite her words, Owen detected an irregularity in its systems that might indicate a fault. It would need to perform a self-diagnostic before continuing with its duties.
Owen didn’t realize Ellen’s visitors had arrived until it had already walked in on them.
“I am sorry, Ellen,” it said, stopping short. “I was unaware your guests had arrived. I will come back later.”
“No, it’s okay, Owen. Stay. Do what you need to do. They don’t care.”
“Gee, Great-Grandma, is that your robot?” asked the older of the two young boys standing next to her bed.
“That’s Owen. He takes care of me. He’s a…what are you again, Owen?”
“An automated caregiver.”
“Yeah, right.” She turned to the other side of her bed to address the man standing there. “So where’s Alisha?”
“You know, it being Christmas Eve and all, she had a lot to do.”
“Is that right,” Ellen replied caustically.
“Well, you know how this place upsets her so, Grandma.”
“It doesn’t exactly make me feel like a princess.”
Her grandson shifted his feet uncomfortably, looking at a loss for words.
“I hope you like the cookies we made for you, Great-Grandma,” the older boy said.
“I’m sure I will, Matthew.”
“Well, we’d better go now and let your great-grandma rest. Give her a hug goodbye and wish her a merry Christmas.”
The older boy reached over and hugged her. “Merry Christmas, Great-Grandma.”
The younger boy kept his hands at his sides and edged back a few inches.
“Go on, Todd, hug your great grandma.”
“He’s scared of me,” Ellen said. “Don’t force him. It’s all right. Great-Grandma Ellen isn’t a very pretty sight these days.”
Her grandson bent down and kissed her forehead. “Merry Christmas, Grandma. I wish…I wish I could–”
“Get along now,” she said sharply, cutting him off. “Santa will be here soon, and these boys need to get to bed so they don’t miss out.”
“Okay, boys. Wave goodbye to your great grandma.”
The older boy waved and said, “Goodbye, Great-Grandma.” The younger one hesitated, waved quickly in her direction, then hurried to catch up with his father and brother.
When they were gone, Owen spoke up. “It must be nice to have family members come and visit. Will your son be coming, too?”
“My son died a long time ago. Car accident.”
Owen picked up her dinner tray and swept a few loose crumbs onto it. “Well then, it was nice that your grandson could visit.”
“I’d just as soon he didn’t. I feel like a hunk of scrap metal weighing him down. I don’t like being a burden.”
“You are not a burden, Ellen.”
“Maybe not to you, Owen, but to family…well, I guess you wouldn’t understand that.”
“No, Ellen. I would not understand that.”
“Owen, is that you?”
Sounding only partially awake, Ellen rolled over and opened her eyes.
“I was just lying here, listening to the rain. Can you hear it?”
“Yes, I can. Would you like me to turn on the sound screen so it does not bother you?”
“No, no. I like listening to it. It’s soothing, don’t you think?”
“Soothing? I do not know what is soothing, Ellen.”
“I’ve always liked the sound of rain. I don’t know why, exactly. I just do.”
“They are holding Easter Sunday services in the community room this morning. Would you like to attend? I have brought your wheelchair.”
“Is it Easter already?”
“Yes, it is. Would you like to join the worshipers?”
“To worship what? God? God deserted me a long time ago. He’s not getting any more from me.”
“I am sorry. My records must be incorrect. Your file designates you as a Christian of the Lutheran denomination. Accordingly, I thought you might wish to take part in the ritual.”
“I am a Christian–was my whole life. I believed, I had faith, I worshiped God. Then He did this to me. Do you think I should worship Him for this?” She held up a twisted, disfigured hand, but could only extend her arm a few inches from her body. “Do you think my faith should be stronger because He turned me into this thing?”
“I cannot say, Ellen. I am not programmed to respond to philosophical questions concerning faith or religion. I do not comprehend the concepts involved.”
“There was a time I would have pitied you for that, Owen. I would even have thought less of you.”
Owen waited to see what else Ellen would say, but the only sound was the patter of rain against the window.
“All right, Ellen. I will return your wheelchair to the storage unit.”
“Yeah, take it back, Owen. I don’t need it. What I have to say to God I can say right here.”
Inside the staff maintenance bay, surrounded by several other diligent caregivers, Owen completed its routine self-diagnostic and filed its daily resident assessments. It didn’t speak to any of its co-workers. That only occurred when its duties required such interaction. Its programming necessitated only that it converse with the residents under its charge. Then, only with those who were coherent enough to carry on conversations. So, as it exited the maintenance bay, Owen didn’t acknowledge any of its peers. It simply traversed the familiar corridor, crossed the homogeneous tile mosaic, and began its evening duty cycle.
Then a notion occurred to it. It was an unusual notion, though not inordinate. It would break from routine. Instead of beginning with the nearest cubicle, it would go first to room 1928, to see Ellen.
It discovered her dinner tray was still full. Except for some minor spillage, the meal appeared to be untouched. Ellen ignored Owen’s presence, seemingly intent on the video screen.
“Ellen, why have you not eaten any of your dinner? Are you not feeling well?”
“It’s crap! It all tastes like crap. Take it away. I don’t want it.”
“You must eat, Ellen. If you refuse to eat, I must nourish you intravenously. I know you would not like that.”
“You’re damn right, I wouldn’t.”
“Please then, try to eat some of your dinner.”
“I can’t! I can’t, okay? My hands don’t work anymore,” she blurted out, the emotion evident in the cracking of her voice. “Look at them. Look at how deformed they are. I can’t even pick up a spoon anymore. I’m helpless. I’m useless. I can’t even feed myself.”
Owen could see she was angry and struggling to hold back the tears welling up in her eyes.
“You should have called me, Ellen.” The automated caregiver moved the swivel table aside and sat on the edge of the bed. “I can feed you.”
“I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to feed me like I’m some kind of baby.”
“Why not, Ellen? That is why I am here. I am here to care for you, to do what you cannot. That is my function.” Owen took the spoon and scooped up a small bite of pureed vegetables. “Please, let me help you.”
Owen held the spoon out, but Ellen remained steadfast, refusing to open her mouth. Owen, too, didn’t move. Displaying the patience of its programming, the indefatigable property of its metallurgy, it held the spoon until Ellen relented and took it into her mouth. She swallowed the morsel as Owen cut into the portion of soy burger. With some reluctance, she took a second mouthful. It waited as she swallowed, then offered her a third spoonful. She wavered momentarily, looking up at Owen.
“It still tastes like crap, you know.”
Owen waited outside Ellen’s room as a facility doctor conducted the required biannual examination. Ellen had been pleading with the doctor for several minutes and had begun to cry. The sound elicited a response in Owen, an impulse to hurry to her side, to care for her. However, Owen determined such action would be inappropriate, and it held its position.
“Please,” it heard her beg, “please give me something. Help me.”
“Now, Ms. Reiner, everything’s going to be all right. You’re going to be fine,” the doctor responded. “Don’t worry now. You’re not going to die.”
“You’re not listening to me. I want to die. I don’t want to live like this.”
“Now, now. Of course you don’t want to die. You shouldn’t say such a thing. You’re going to live a long time. Everything’s going to be all right. I’ll give your caregiver the prescription for the anti-itch lotion, and then I want you to have a nice day. All right?”
The doctor passed Owen as if it weren’t there, making no attempt to input Ellen’s aforementioned prescription. Owen decided the doctor would likely file all the appropriate prescriptions when he had completed his examinations, so it stepped in to check on Ellen.
As soon as she saw Owen, she made a concerted effort to halt her tears and wipe away any evidence that she’d been crying. So Owen checked the medic monitor, giving her a moment to compose herself.
“It’s so hot, Owen. I can’t get this sheet off. Could you help me?”
“Certainly, Ellen. Would you like it pulled all the way down?”
“I am sorry the temperature is uncomfortable for you. The climate controls are not functioning properly, but a repair crew has been notified.”
“It’s so hot for June. It must be at least 80 outside.”
“The date is August 9th, Ellen.”
“It’s August already?”
“At last report, the exterior temperature was 92 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“August?” she mumbled to herself. “What happened to July?”
“If there is nothing else you need, I will tend to my other residents now.”
Owen turned to leave.
“Don’t go!” Ellen called out. She hesitated, then said with less despair, “Please don’t go yet. Stay with me for a while.”
Owen contemplated the unusual request. Its atypical nature required further consideration. Its schedule necessitated it see to its other residents’ needs. It began calculating the time necessary for it to complete its shift responsibilities, then abruptly ceased its computations.
“All right, Ellen. I will stay a while longer.”
“Oh, Owen, it’s so nice to be outside. You don’t know.”
The automated caregiver carefully maneuvered the wheelchair down the narrow cement pathway. On either side was a carpet of lush green grass, and several yards away, was a stand of oak trees. It was a clear day. The sun was high above, and the sky was bright blue.
The impromptu excursion outside the repository, though not unprecedented, required Owen to circumvent protocol. It was not wholly at ease with its actions but found justification in the form of Ellen’s emotional transformation.
“I am glad you are enjoying it, Ellen. When I learned about this location so near the facility, I concluded you might appreciate a brief outing.”
“But not too brief, okay?”
“We will stay as long as we are able. I will have to return to my other duties soon.”
“This isn’t a day for duties, Owen. This is a day to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, to admire the color of the autumn leaves, and smell the flowers.”
“I am not equipped with olfactory senses, Ellen.”
“Too bad. But you can see, and you can feel the sun, can’t you?”
“I do sense the heat on my exterior overlay.”
“Oh, look! Look there! It’s a little stream. Can we go down there by the water? Please, Owen.”
“I will attempt to move you closer.”
It gently pushed the wheelchair off the path and across the grass to a spot near the tiny waterway. It locked the chair’s wheels and stood patiently by.
“I could sit here all day. It’s so beautiful. Listen to the sound the water makes as it rushes by. Don’t you wonder where it’s going?”
“The question of its ultimate destination did not occur to me, Ellen. However, I could research the geography of the area if you would like.”
“No, no, it’s just the idea of imagining where it’s going.” She looked up at Owen, but there was no expression on its artificial face to decipher. “I’m sorry, Owen. I forgot for a second. You probably think this is all so silly.”
“I do not believe it is silly if it pleases you, Ellen.”
“It does, Owen. It does. Look! Over there. It’s a butterfly. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Though it understood the word, beauty as a concept was beyond its programming. So Owen didn’t reply. It stood impassively with its charge, watching the insect’s flight.
Neither spoke for some time, nevertheless, Owen could tell Ellen’s disposition had improved by a degree that was quantifiable. That generated within its systems the concept of a task adequately performed, a vague notion it could only define as fulfillment.
“I must return you to your room and resume my other duties now, Ellen.”
“I do have other residents I must attend to.”
Owen unlocked the wheels and turned the chair.
“You are welcome, Ellen.”
The corridors of Repository Carehouse 319 were filled with the distant, muted sounds of revelry. So many residents had tuned their video screens to the same programming that the festive broadcast echoed stereophonically throughout the facility. Owen understood it was the celebration of a new year, a new calendar decade. The occasion seemed to call for much noise and frenetic activity.
However, it still had its duties to perform. Its residents still had to be cared for. Soiled sheets still had to be changed, meal trays cleared, waste receptacles emptied. It began, as called for according to its self-revised routine, by checking on room 1928.
Ellen lay on her side, facing away from the entry. Unlike most of those in the facility, her video screen was inactive.
“Ellen, do you not want to watch the New Year’s festivities?”
When she failed to respond, Owen moved closer. Her eyes were open, but there was no sign of recognition in them.
“Ellen? Are you all right?”
Her eyes tilted upward, but she didn’t move.
“I can barely hear you,” she said. “I think I’m losing my hearing.”
Owen adjusted its audio output. “Can you hear this?”
“Everyone is watching the New Year’s Eve broadcast. Would you like me to activate your screen?”
She shook her head curtly and looked away. It was apparent to Owen that Ellen was not behaving normally. Her disposition displayed symptoms analogous to severe depression. Nevertheless, before resorting to a petition for psychological counseling, Owen resolved to draw her into conversation.
“It is unfortunate your family members were not able to visit you for the Christmas holiday this year. However, it was thoughtful of them to send that splendid videocard. I conjecture they will schedule a visit soon. Do you agree?” She didn’t respond, so Owen continued. “If you do not wish to watch the celebration here in your room, I can bring a wheelchair and escort you to the community room. It is my understanding there is an ongoing party to celebrate the coming year. Would you like that?”
Her head moved sluggishly side-to-side.
“Please leave me alone, Owen. I just want to be left alone.”
“All right, Ellen. I will leave you. However, I will return later. Perhaps you can instruct me in that card game you described.”
Owen waited for a reply, for some acknowledgment, but there was none. So it left her as she requested.
Owen’s internal alarm sounded, and it noted with unaccustomed distress that the alert originated with the medic monitor in room 1928. It hurried to the room, confirming the danger with the beeping medic monitor upon arrival. It was about to initiate the video record option, but discontinued. Ellen was in her bed, eyes open and apparently fine, though her breathing was labored. Owen went to her.
“Ellen, can you hear me?”
“Yes, but…but it’s hard to breathe.”
“Here, use this.” It detached the oxygen mask from its niche in the wall and placed it over her face. “Your blood pressure is diminishing. I am going to alert the emergency medical team.”
With the mask over her face, she couldn’t respond, but she reached out as best she could and rested her gnarled fingers on Owen’s inorganic arm. Her motivation wasn’t clear, yet, somehow, Owen felt it understood the meaning of her touch.
“If you do not receive immediate medical attention, you will likely suffer heart failure. I am required to summon assistance.”
Owen thought it discerned a slight sideways movement of her head, as if she were attempting a negative response. Her gaze implored, causing inexplicable conflict within Owen’s systems, forcing it to reconcile the needs and desires of its resident with its overriding program.
Ellen brushed aside the mask with the back of her crippled hand and tried to speak, but all Owen heard was a gasp for air. It reached down, placed its distal extremity reassuringly on her forehead, and left it there until her eyelids gave way and fell.
Owen checked the medic monitor, looked back at Ellen for a protracted moment, and stepped away from the bed. It deactivated the monitor and exited the room to resume its duties.
It wasn’t supposed to be here. It was scheduled to perform a self-diagnostic. However, it had concluded that bypassing routine on this singular occasion would not be detrimental to its overall performance. Instead, it had chosen to exit Repository Carehouse 319 and retreat to a particular grassy mound, where it could feel the sun’s warmth on its exterior overlay, contemplate stored memories, and listen to the water as it rushed by on its way to destinations unknown.