WE’RE ALL SUPER HERE
by Michaele Jordan
Esther opened the drawer; an old newspaper had been stuffed in on top, showing a headline which read Oldster Gang Trashes SS Office. Next to the headline, someone—probably Mom, judging by the handwriting—had scrawled, Beats Sunset Acres. Esther chuckled; Mom had never gone ten minutes without complaining about the assisted living facility where she resided. Then Esther remembered, again, and stopped chuckling.
She pulled Mom’s lavender sweater out of the drawer, then swayed, fell back onto the edge of the windowsill, and started to cry. It wasn’t the sweater, of course. The sweater was simply the warmest, snuggliest sweater ever made. Mom had pulled it out every year in mid-November and lived in it until early March; there had never been a fire in the fireplace without that sweater nearby. Or hot cocoa on the sofa, either. Never again.
It had been easier with Dad. She and Mom had just closed the door to his room and walked away. They had not attempted to sort his things until six months later. But Sunset Acres had insisted the room be cleared out. They said that Mom had guaranteed them she would be out by Friday. Total B.S., of course. How could Mom possibly have known she would . . .would be out by Friday?
Jake had been a huge help. He had taken a half day off work and showed up with a truck and some buddies to clear out Mom’s furniture and anything else that was already packed. They’d left the chest because it wasn’t worth keeping. But now, Esther was alone with Mom’s clothes and knick-knacks. It wasn’t much, but packing took a long time when every third item she touched made her cry.
There was a box, a totally unfamiliar box, on the floor of the closet. It looked sort of like a shoe box, only bigger. Maybe boots? But what would Mom be doing with boots? She’d worn nothing but soft slippers for years. The sheer mystery was a relief from the pain. Esther lowered herself down to sit cross-legged (not recommended at Esther’s age, but the chairs were all gone) on the less than soft green carpet. Mom had hated that carpet; she had said it looked like puke. But Esther just hadn’t been able to persuade Sunset Acres to put down a new one, not even when she’d assured them she’d pay for it herself. Esther took a deep breath, ordered herself to forget about the carpet, and pulled the box toward her.
It wasn’t boots. The label was from a medical supplies company. Even when the box was open, its contents were not apparent; they were obscured by the invoice. Esther looked at the invoice and gasped. Where had Mom expected to get that kind of money? Maybe the box really belonged to Sunset Acres instead of Mom? But no, the invoice had Mom’s name, address, and room number at the top. And at the bottom of the page, the “balance still due” read “$0.00.” Preposterous. Esther’s eyes traveled back to the top of the paper. The astronomical price tag was followed by a line reading, “payment received.”
Mom had bought this thing. And she’d paid for it. She must have emptied her savings, including what she’d gotten for the house, and closed out the account that paid her rent. No wonder the home wanted her stuff by Friday.
Esther gently brushed the peanuts out of the top of the box onto the carpet—let Sunset Acres clean them up—and gently lifted out what looked like a baby’s footed pajamas made out of duct tape. She stared for several seconds at the incomprehensible garment, then looked back into the box. Carefully protected in molded foam were several small bottles and some plastic thingies that looked like thumb drives. She lifted one out and examined it. Definitely a thumb drive. She put it back. Finally, underneath the foam forms, she found an instruction manual.
Congratulations! Your X-Caliber 3000 carries a lifetime guarantee to provide you with the mobility you need and the comfort you deserve! Esther had risen to her knees, which creaked and popped in protest, while rooting through the bottom of the box. Now she fell back on her butt with a thump. Her hip whined at the impact, but she hardly noticed. An X-Caliber 3000! No wonder the price was so high. How had her mother gotten this thing at any price? They were not casually available. Maybe she had pulled some strings at the VA, but even so, an X-Caliber 3000?!
She knew a little bit about the product; everybody did. It’d been a hot topic in the news ever since the appearance of the first Oldster Gang…no, even earlier; it had first made the papers when the military and the bio-tech company that had done the development started suing each other for control. The Army had paid for the initial research, hoping to produce comfortable, lightweight body armor. Only the body armor never quite satisfied the DoD, so the contract was canceled. Apparently, the developers had neglected to acquire complete military authorization before reworking the design as elder support.
And it was first-class elder support. It served as both an exo-skeleton and a full body medical patch, enabling seniors to toss aside their walkers and abandon most of their medications. The suit monitored hormonal and endocrinal levels, adjusting anything from insulin to growth hormones automatically. It removed toxins directly from the blood stream; it could even extract excess fat. If external medication was still required, it could be patched in easily; if the user was still somehow incapacitated, a GPS tag signaled for assistance. In short, it made the lucky senior effectively whole and sound again—at least, physically. As the Oldster Gangs had plainly demonstrated, it did not necessarily assist with mental deterioration.
Esther’s mind went blank. Too strange to think about. She closed up the box and went on with the packing. Strangely, her tears had stopped; she just packed like a zombie and loaded things into the car. She stopped at Goodwill on her way home. When she got home, she stuck the box on the table by the door, on the lower shelf, so it wasn’t in the way. Then she fell into the recliner, slapping vaguely at the remote until the T.V. came on.
Sheer exhaustion pressed her grief out of the way. Unfortunately, she discovered that the grief had in its turn pushed away the physical discomfort of the day. Weary as she was, she could not relax. Every joint ached. Every muscle screamed from the unexpected effort of hours spent stooping and lifting, stooping and lifting. She sighed, pushed herself back out of the recliner and trudged to the bathroom.
She still had extra pain pills leftover from the accident. After all, she’d fibbed to the doctor to extend her prescription. Or so she thought. But when she finally managed to wrench free the childproof cap, the bottle was empty. And she’d been so careful with them, only taking a half pill at a time, just when her arthritis kicked in. Why hadn’t she thrown the empty away? Did she think she’d enjoy being set up for disappointment?
And she was disappointed, terribly so. So much so that she almost wept while scrambling through the medicine chest, vacillating between aspirin and ibuprofen. Stupid mindless habit. Now she’d never get to sleep. Getting old was not for sissies. She suddenly reflected that it was not age, but accumulated loss and disappointment that wore the body down. She sighed and climbed back into the recliner for the news.
Next thing she knew, the room was very dark except for the blazing T.V. screen, and it wasn’t displaying news; it was on some talking heads thing. Two women, a man, and—was she dreaming? She had to be dreaming!—a costumed superhero were sitting around a coffee table eyeing each other with polite malevolence. Esther shook her head. It didn’t feel like a dream, but the T.V. was definitely presenting a talk show with a superhero. She grabbed the remote—would she dream about T.V. remotes?—and hit the restart button.
The man was Douglas Fortran, one of T.V.’s most reputable pundits. The woman in the coffee-colored business suit was Andrea Twelvetrees, a Republican from the Arizona Legislature who was spearheading a bill to ban exo-suits. The woman in the military uniform was Colonel Enid Thompson; she was a hotshot in the V.A., in charge of the senior veterans’ assistance program. And the superhero was called Bob. Just Bob. Not-his-real-name Bob. He was talking to the media only on the condition of complete anonymity.
Bob’s superhero suit was an X-Caliber 3000. Apparently, Bob had figured out how to screw with the automatic settings. He’d jacked it up to something very close to the original military parameters. He was ripped like a body builder. He freely admitted that he’d patched in a large number of “pharmaceutical extras.” He’d also patched in the electric lime green color. The banana-colored underpants—jockeys, not boxers—were just ordinary underpants; if anything, that color could be called ordinary.
The bright yellow circle on Bob’s chest was an electronic gizmo that Esther had never heard of before, a sort of cell phone patch; you only charged it once, then attached it directly to your body. It could only receive short-range calls, but it could monitor a lot of other nearby electronic activity, too. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, secret; it was available in military surplus. But for the most part, only vets knew about it; it had been developed for Azerbaijan.
Esther was so fascinated that she kicked the recliner back to an upright position. Her back complained, but she ignored it. She even leaned forward in her eagerness to follow the conversation, which seemed only a few seconds away from a fist fight.
Representative Twelvetrees attempted to launch a polemic against the dangerous Oldster Gangs and the evils of “exo-suit abuse” every time she got a word in edgewise, but Colonel Thompson was very canny about ceding her the floor and was far better armed with facts.
“Exo-suits have been issued to 12,432 veterans, 96.8 percent of whom report a significant improvement in their quality of life,” she expounded. “There are less than a hundred documented cases of those suits being used inappropriately. The media attention garnered by these Oldster Gangs has created a grossly distorted public impression of the threat.” She turned to Bob. “Would you agree that Gang Oldsters are actually few in number?”
“Absolutely!” answered Bob. “My organization (I call it an organization, but we’re really just a social club with a political bent) has only seventeen members. We’re in communication with about two dozen…” he paused to count mentally, “well, maybe thirty other clubs, but most of them are not really activists.”
“You see?” burst out the congresswoman. “The colonel said ‘less than a hundred,’ but that’s at least five hundred right there. And how many ‘clubs’ are out there that you don’t know about?”
“Bob did say that most of those clubs were not activists,” replied the colonel. “Nor does membership in a club necessarily qualify as exo-suit abuse. Perhaps,” she smiled icily, “we should clarify the distinction between what are actually two separate issues. Oldster Gangs are voluntary associations of seniors already in possession of exo-suits, some of whom have turned to extreme political dissent or adopted vigilante behaviors.”
“Vigilantes?” snorted Representative Twelvetrees. “You can hardly describe their actions as rational political dissent or even over zealous law enforcement. More like drug-crazed maniacs.”
Colonel Thompson did not like being interrupted and raised her voice to override the protest. “Gang members are widely suspected of exo-suit abuse, but that has never been documented. All we know for sure is that many of them, like Bob, have added color patches, instead of allowing the suit to display their natural skin tones. Most documented cases of exo-suit abuse are not associated with the gangs at all; they are simply unhappy seniors who have adjusted their endorphins to unhealthy levels, sometimes augmenting the process by patching in extra tryptophan.”
Bob should have jumped in to support her; she was obviously his natural ally against the congresswoman. Instead, he announced, “Well, it probably depends on just what you mean by abuse. Most of us do adjust our endorphin levels. You reach a certain age, pretty much everything hurts. Exo-skeletons don’t change that, but serotonin does.”
Both ladies turned to him, but it was Representative Twelvetrees who asked, “What about you? Do you adjust your serotonin levels?”
“Damn straight,” said Bob.
“Don’t you know how dangerous that is?” snapped the congresswoman. “You could kill yourself!”
“Is that what’s keeping you awake nights?” retorted Bob. “Me killing myself? Before I got this suit, I was a burden. My kids didn’t want me, Social Security didn’t want to support me, the V.A. didn’t want to take care of me.” Colonel Thompson opened her mouth, but he glared her down and continued, “Nobody wanted to take care of me. Nobody wanted to pay to take care of me. I’m not saying I don’t understand where they were coming from; I needed a whole lot of care, and it cost a bundle. But I seem to recall you voted to cut benefits, Congresswoman. So you tell me now that you care if I kill myself, and I’ll call you a liar to your face. It’s not like it’ll cost you anything.”
Fortran leaned in with his hands spread in a calming gesture; Bob breathed deeply and leaned back. The congresswoman made no reply; she looked genuinely shaken. The colonel lifted an eyebrow and took up the slack.
“Bob makes a good point that the term exo-abuse is poorly defined. The suits are routinely equipped to raise serotonin levels and a number of other neurotransmitters, specifically for the purpose of pain management, which is a serious, and I might add, constant issue in elder care. The use of that function by a senior who is experiencing pain does not necessarily constitute abuse, nor does it necessarily affect mental clarity.”
“Then why,” inquired the congresswoman, “do so many of these Oldsters exhibit erratic behavior?”
“Well, the suits don’t cure Alzheimer’s,” Bob pointed out. “Plenty of Oldsters are kind of squirrelly. When they get real bad, they’re supposed to go back to a home. Except a lot of them can’t afford a home. And,” he glowered at Representative Twelvetrees, “they don’t get any benefits, either. So they run around in their suits until they kill themselves.”
“Beats Sunset Acres,” whispered Esther and turned off the T.V. She clambered out of the recliner, despite protests from every joint, and went into the hall to the table by the door, for the box. The instruction manual was long and complicated and repeated on every other page in large bold letters, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ACTIVATE WITHOUT MEDICAL SUPERVISION.
“Hey, I used to be a nurse,” Esther pointed out to herself. “That’s medical supervision.”
Esther knocked on the Lodge door, but there wasn’t any answer, so she opened it herself and walked in. Public place, right? Inside, she found an unmanned entry station which led immediately to a large, comfortable lounge where about fifteen people—maybe six of them women—were hanging around. There was a green guy in the back at the pool table; for a minute, Esther thought it might be Bob, but she noticed that this guy was short and not so bulked up. Buff, of course, but more lean and wiry. So it was just some other green guy.
Everybody else was pretty normal in a well-built kind of way. They were probably all old, but they mostly looked about thirty or even younger. Nobody was fat or bald or wrinkled. Their faces, however, were ordinary faces, although youthful. There were plenty of big noses and thin lips and over-sized ears. They were mostly dressed in army surplus. Esther felt kind of over-dressed; she was wearing her Mom’s old uniform.
Nobody seemed to notice her, so she coughed loudly. They noticed her then. “Lordy,” Esther muttered to herself. “Don’t you just love it when everybody stares?” She managed a perky smile. “I’m here to sign on!” she announced, and they all just went on staring. I’m making a big mistake, she told herself, but since she was there, she saw no option but to soldier on. “So what’s next? There’s got to be some kind of paperwork, right? This is the Army.”
“So, how do I join the Lodge?”
“You can’t,” snarled a big guy wearing a green VFW ball cap.
Her perky manner crumbled. “I can’t?” she almost whimpered.
“Shit, Doug, give it a rest.” A redhead on the sofa jumped up like a teenager, uncoiling in the process to a height of almost seven feet. He tossed the towel he’d been wearing around his shoulders at the VFW cap; his aim was perfect, and the towel draped itself over the cap, completely concealing Doug’s face.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” said the redhead. “He’s taken a vow of pessimism.” He crossed the room in about three giant steps and extended a hand. “I’m Sam,” he announced. “And I would be absolutely dee-lighted to take your application, Sister. We are way too short on pretty ladies around here.”
“Thanks! I’m Rachel Goldman,” Esther told him, handing him her mother’s dog tags.
Doug pulled the towel off his face. “Didn’t say she wasn’t welcome,” he pouted. “But we still can’t take her application. The DNA scanner’s down.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “We can’t confirm her application. But we can process it. Then, when it bounces, we just mark her probationary pending confirmation.”
“I’ve been pending confirmation for a year and a half,” said somebody in the back. “Doesn’t hurt a bit.”
Sam turned the dog tags over in his hand several times. “Wow, these are antique! I think I’m gonna have to enter you manually.” He slapped the smart table in front of the door to open a keyboard and started typing. “Rachel Goldman, you said? And your date of birth?”
Out in the real world, she would have gone to the wall rather than reveal her date of birth. But it wasn’t her date of birth, anyway. “August 17, 1934.”
“Shit, you’re even older than I am!” burst out a short guy at the back. “What’s your war? Desert Storm?”
“Way older than that,” she told him. “I signed up in 1951—that was Korea. Then I marked time doing clerical in Panzer Kaserne.”
“Where’s that?” asked somebody.
“Germany, near Stuttgart,” said somebody else.
Esther nodded. “Yeah, and then they sent me back to Seoul in ’65 cause my German was so good, I guess.” This time, she got a laugh.
A stocky woman came up from the back. Her hair was so short you couldn’t be sure what color it was, and she was wearing a T-shirt that said: There are 10 kinds of people. Those that understand binary and those that don’t. She was frowning. “1934? 1951? You signed up when you were seventeen? Why so young?”
Esther hunched her shoulders in a gesture of embarrassment. “It’s kind of dumb. You gotta promise not to laugh.”
Doug lifted an eyebrow. “Well, of course it’s dumb. You were seventeen.”
Everybody laughed again. Esther, too. “My boyfriend got drafted. I had it in my head that if we both went to Korea, we’d be together.” And that didn’t just get a laugh, it floored them. Sam even fell off his chair and had to be pounded on the back when he started hiccupping. Once he was back on his feet, she concluded, “So I cashed in my twenty in ’71. Vietnam just wasn’t as much fun as I’d expected.”
Sam stopped typing and peered down at the table. “Oops.” He looked back at the dog tags and then back at the table. Finally, he looked back to Esther. “Says here, you’re dead.”
Esther opened her eyes very wide and said, “Wow. I hope that’s a mistake.” She reached with her right hand to her left shoulder and plucked with two fingers at the fabric of her exo-suit, which only grudgingly separated from her skin. “Just how good are these things, anyway?” And she got another really big laugh.
“That’s gonna be double probation,” quipped Sam.
Even the green guy (he was wearing cargo shorts) abandoned the pool table to join in the laughter. He offered her an arm and escorted her to the sofa. It was the funniest thing, but even though his arm looked completely hairless, his skin felt ever so slightly fuzzy. He leaned in earnestly toward her. Up close and personal, his skin had an odd texture, almost velvety. “So, have you heard the latest about Social Security?” he asked.
“Drop it right now, Shrek,” said somebody in the back. “No fair hitting her with politics until somebody buys her a beer.”
Somebody else called out, “Name your poison, Sister!”
“You got any cider?” asked Esther. “Or is that too snobby?”
“Yes!” cried the woman who’d subtracted thirty-four from fifty-one. Presumably, she meant yes to the cider, not the snobby, because she continued, “Told you I wasn’t the only one who drank it!” She plunked down by Esther’s side bearing two chilled bottles. Her unlined skin was sort of velvety, too. Had to be the suit. “My granddaughter got me hooked on this stuff,” she said, handing Esther a cider. “You want to see her picture?” She pulled out her phone pad without waiting for an answer. “My name’s Peggy,” she mentioned as she thumbed through her pics.
“But you can call her Egg-Head,” said Shrek.
Peggy sniffed. “I suppose you gotta expect infantry jocks to be jealous of R&D. I did my tour in Japan at the cyborg labs.” She smiled down into her lap and offered Esther the phone pad, which displayed a teenager making a goofy face.
“She’s darling,” said Esther. “Let’s compromise. I’ll call you Sister.”
Peggy looked up with a smile. She had a square, heavy face with too much jaw and a blobby nose. But her smile would melt what was left of the polar ice cap. “That works for me.”
Esther leaned back into the sofa cushions and propped her feet up on the coffee table. She was pleased to observe that she had very nice legs and even more pleased to observe that her knees didn’t creak when she hiked her legs upwards. Her back didn’t hurt, either. She glanced around the room at her new friends and realized that they weren’t staring. They were just looking and smiling and making her welcome.
A very brief wave of sadness swept over her. Mom ought to be here; she had wanted this. But Esther found she was strong enough to set the sadness aside until later. For now, she had things to do, things Mom would have wanted her to do. She caught Shrek’s eye and gave him a wink. She had heard the latest about Social Security; she was pretty pissed about it, even ready to try and do something about it, now that she had the strength. She took a deep satisfying draw on her cider, which tasted better than she remembered anything tasting in years. “Oh, yes,” she murmured to herself. “It sure does beat Sunset Acres.”