She has not responded to his calls for nearly a half-hour. “Dorothy?” he pleads again, raising his voice, as if this might assist his search for her presence. No response.
As a fallback, Parker taps his index finger on the spot where the upper part of his jaw meets his right earlobe. The tapping creates a firm, pleasing sound. But that is all it does. Haven’t heard from her in a long while now, he thinks. Hope she’s not gone dead. He taps again. Nothing happens. He stops tapping and returns his concentration to the dirt road, which is about to dead-end.
Parker’s angular jaw clenches, and his hazel eyes, set beneath dark eyebrows, dart to the left toward his next turn. Barely decelerating, Parker swerves his 4700-Series Sport-Model Elo onto the gravel of the long, straight drive, which leads from the dirt road to the white barn. Small rocks spew from beneath the car’s tires as he accelerates again. Reaching the barn, he shifts the Elo into reverse and connects the back bumper with a Juice JackTM.
Parker could have asked Dorothy to take over driving, to connect him with the Juice JackTM, which will power the Elo for another seven hundred miles. But he would rather do this thing himself. Parker has always been that way, do it himself, ever since about age eleven.
On foot, he approaches the barn. The grey of the original barn wood peeps through the whitewash. As he opens the barn doors, Parker hums the first few lines to the song “Red Barchetta”. The song, a tune by the band Rush, was one of many Parker’s father had introduced to him years ago, either playing compact discs or, more often, spinning vinyl records on an outdated turntable. Parker recalls, when he was six years old he had dizzied himself listening to rock music, running around the starter circle on a ten-square-foot wrestling mat in their finished basement. The music had blared from cheap plastic speakers, the sound from the records suffused with crackles. Rush. Blondie. Styx. Then Nirvana.
Parker’s father would cajole him. “Come on, Park. Let me show you a wrestling move. That’s why I bought the mat.”
No, no, no! Parker had thought, running faster. Getting away!
Parker’s gangly frame seemed to have been created for running. Even now, Parker is all elbows and knees, his pale limbs poking out from tan cargo shorts and a faded blue, Rolling Stones T-shirt.
And Parker still runs. Just this morning, as the sun had risen, he had raced through the quaint Borough of Dairytown, a distant suburb of Philadelphia.
Running, not wrestling, is Parker’s grind.
Still, Parker had felt a tug in his chest when, during his early teenage years, they had carted that wrestling mat away. The mat had been tossed to the curb, where it had waited lifelessly for garbage men to pick it up with their truck’s giant iron claw.
An outdated automobile waits inside the barn. Underneath a thick black car cover rests a white Porsche, a convertible 911 Carrera 2, with a distinctive engine lid that doubles as a spoiler. This is Parker’s father’s car, purchased in the mid-nineties. Then, in 2013 there had been a burning need for quick cash. The car had been hastily sold to his father’s sister, Jennifer Twiddle-LaFleur.
Three years ago, his fortune made in the world of artificial knee design, Parker had purchased this barn and a swath of land surrounding it, deep in the heart of Pennsylvania. Then Parker had flown from Philadelphia to Boca Raton, Florida, and kindly asked his Aunt Jennie if he could buy back the car. He recalls her response. “You can take it, Park. We kept it covered in the garage, just in case. But at this point, sweetie, maybe we shouldn’t hold onto the past.”
Into the barn the car had gone.
As Parker’s voice activates the lid of the Elo’s trunk (he does not need Dorothy for this task), he peers around, as if he expects to catch somebody spying on him. There is no need to worry. The nearest neighbors lie far across the faded farmland, now wild fields. From within the trunk, Parker lifts three red plastic containers, each with a nozzle poking up from its front. This is contraband. Luckily, Parker has friends in the military, which is the only place a civilian can obtain gasoline.
Parker begins to sing another Rush song, “New World Man,” as he pours the gas into the tank of the Porsche. Then he hops into the car. Top down. “Dorothy, please turn on the radio.” Three years ago, Parker had refitted the car’s dashboard with a classic, voice-activated technology package.
Dorothy finally answers, as if she has been present the entire time. Her voice emanates from a speaker in the DotzTM, a miniscule patch secured to the skin immediately below Parker’s right ear. “You sound like you’re catching a cold, Mr. Twiddle,” chides Dorothy. Her voice sounds as if it could be coming from inside his head, so targeted is the nanoscopic speaker in the DotzTM.
“Hello again, Mr. Twiddle,” replies a soft, slightly metallic woman’s voice. He has programmed her voice to sound a little tinny.
“Dorothy, please play ‘Red Barchetta.'”
“I heard you humming that earlier. As you wish.”
The song begins to play as Parker shifts gears and burns down the gravel drive, heading back toward the dirt road. The Porsche’s back wheels spit gravel and dust.
The automobile exceeds fifty miles per hour and the spoiler rises.
Parker travels the dirt path about a mile, and then, skidding, he spins the car onto a narrow, paved road. The blacktop is empty, save for his car, and the Porsche screams down the lane at nearly one hundred miles per hour.
Parker speaks over the song. “Going to see my father, Dorothy.”
When he is a little over a mile’s distance from the facility, Dorothy cautions, “It is five hundred yards until your spot, Mr. Twiddle.” Parker slows, pulls onto a side path masked by cornstalks. Parked in the dirt, the Porsche is hidden, swallowed along the edge of a seemingly endless cornfield.
Genetically enhanced cornstalk after genetically enhanced cornstalk for companions, Parker walks along the side of the back road. The facility appears on the horizon. It gleams a greenish hue under the midday sun. Dandelions guard the side of the road opposite the cornstalks.
Maybe this time will be better. Maybe this time I can help fix him.
Shall I play “Fix You” by Coldplay from the SlipStreamTM? Dorothy asks, her voice now reverberating inside his head. Dorothy is no longer using the nanospeaker to communicate.
Parker’s brow lowers. No, Dorothy, I was thinking of something else. No songs, please, he silently requests. He has noticed that, lately, Dorothy sometimes gets it wrong. He makes a mental note to contact DotSet Service. Dorothy has been built to adapt and learn; to synthesize information, the fifth- and sixth-generation DotzTM technology uses what the GenieUSesTM at DotSet have named neuroplastic nanobits. Combine this feature with Dorothy’s ability to access the public knowledge-base of other DotSet entities via the DotSet SlipStreamTM, and Parker’s personal entity should provide near-flawless advice and service. However, not only did Dorothy misread Parker’s thoughts, but he also does not recall activating the THOught Recognition Processor, or THORPrTM. Regardless of the glitch, Parker marvels at how the sixth-generation removable DotzTM can literally tap into and interpret his brain waves via the THORPrTM. Dorothy is able to read his mind and respond to him with internal audio.
I should reconfigure the DotzTM to voice activation only, Parker thinks.
“No worries. I will do this now,” Dorothy remarks aloud.
“Thank you, Dorothy.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Twiddle. I promise I now will speak only when spoken to.”
Parker reaches the outskirts of the facility. He feels a hum rush through his body as he receives a DNA scan from somewhere up above. A thick metal gate retracts sideways, automatically rolling into a slot in the guardhouse.
Parker heads toward the main entrance. He marches briskly through a parking lot brimming with Elos. It is visiting day. Parker stares up at the guards in the watchtower above the parking lot. They stand facing out, automatic weapons by their sides. Built thirteen years ago in 2023, one of many to fill a growing need, this institution is described as a rehabilitation facility to treat the criminally insane. But there is no mistaking this square, daunting three-story cement building for anything but what it really is: A prison.
Following a full-body scan, the check-in process is easy. “Right this way Mr. Twiddle. Why thank you! Incredibly generous! God bless you, Mr. Twiddle!” Amazing how many hearts and minds can be won with well-placed gratuities and donation checks.
Two enormous orderlies, dense muscles bulging beneath white suits, escort him into the guards’ elevator and then down a secured hallway.
Parker has never quite gotten accustomed to that sterile, astringent odor in the hallways. Something about the smell makes him think of a movie he once saw in which soldiers lay bloodied in a makeshift field hospital, moaning, wanting to die. He does not understand the connection.
Reaching the end of the hall, one of the orderlies presses his eye against an old-school retinal scanner. Then, keys jangling, he unlocks the deadbolt.
Elis sits on his bed. He is reading a large book, the paper kind. Unlike Parker’s mop of sandy brown hair, Elis’ white hair is shaved extremely close.
Parker hands a gold piece to each of the orderlies.
The orderlies leave the room, closing the door behind them, breaking protocol.
Elis Twiddle, gold-rimmed glasses hanging on the tip of his nose, raises his clear blue eyes.
Gravity, Parker considers as their eyes meet. Parker has noticed this heaviness during his last few trips. It frightens Parker, these signs of apathy.
His father removes his glasses. “Hello, Parker.” His father’s voice is monotone.
“Big book, Dad.”
“Yes, but I don’t seem to be getting any smarter reading it.”
Parker sits on the bed beside his father, embraces him awkwardly. His father wraps his arms around Parker’s thin shoulders with a weak, half-hearted response. Elis’ hands do not touch Parker’s back.
“Did you bring the sugar cookies?” asks his father.
“Sorry, Dad, but I had a talk with Dr. Phaba about it. It’s a no-go.”
His father rises, pulls taut the drawstring on his robin’s egg blue pajama bottoms. Then Elis Twiddle moves to near the window, sits in a rocking chair, and begins to rock slowly. “I’ve told you, the cookies help. The inmates they let out into the common area don’t like me. I need something to keep them mollified. Some of those guys are scary. Like a bunch of crazy apes.”
“I’ll see what I can do, Dad. I’ll try again.”
“You look good, Parker. Fit.”
“I’m OK, Dad. I started managing a new company a couple months ago to keep myself busy. They have a nice indoor track on their roof.” Parker has never used the track. “How are you doing?”
His father fixes his heavy eyes upon Parker. “Apparently, I’m still batshit crazy. So, still a danger to a-hole cops.”
Parker unintentionally rolls his eyes. Then he inhales and exhales deeply. In doing so, the sharp cleaning solution bites at his nostrils. “Come on, Dad.”
“Now don’t get emotional, Parker. You’re the logical guy. I like that about you. I always knew you were going to make it big. You’re a winner, despite everything I put you through. I always knew.”
Could have fooled me, Parker reflects, and he is glad Dorothy is not rummaging about inside his head.
“When is Erin going to visit again? She usually comes around Valentine’s Day.”
Parker pauses, and then he mutters, “Erin isn’t going to visit anymore, Dad.” Another pause. “She says she’s sorry. She loves you.”
No crying. “I knew she would stop, sooner or later. You will stop coming too, if—”
“If what, Dad?”
“If I don’t die first.”
“Please, Dad. Don’t talk like that.”
Elis Twiddle stops rocking, changes the subject. “You know, Parker, they try to keep word of the new technology away from me. You and I have never talked about all the new technology. But I’ve found out about it anyway. I still find out what’s going on out there. And not just about your artificial knees. I found out about DotzTM from DotSet. Yeah, I’ve heard about DotSet Company. I know about their DotzTM SlipStreamTM, which is just a glorified Cloud if you ask me.” Elis chuckles at some private joke.
Parker raises his eyebrows. “Dad, Dr. Phaba feels—”
“I understand, Parker. What was that, my theory du jour back in 2015? The world is being run by some huge supercomputer, and our lives are a big, complex video game.” His father shakes his head. “Nuts!”
Parker sighs again, relieved. “So if it’s all nuts, Dad, why—”
“Well it’s not all nuts, Parker!” His father’s voice is still low, yet tainted with a hint of sharpness. “Are we going to go round again about what I’ve seen?”
Parker’s stomach tightens. “I don’t want to argue.”
Elis lowers his voice again. “Sure, I could walk right out of here if I renounced it all. I could just agree I’ve been psychotic since 2011. The meds they give me, the annual injections, I could lie and say they’re finally working. I’ve seen the light. I’m healed, and I am free to go.”
“But something is different, Dad. You seem different lately. Do you have a new theory?” Parker would be reassured by a new theory.
Elis stares out the window a long while. “I know you’re humoring me. I don’t have a new theory, Parker. I realize now, I just don’t know anything at all.” He turns to Parker, eyes still weighty. “I’m going to be seventy in October, Parker. And I am fairly certain I am going to die soon.”
“Dad, please don’t.”
“It’s OK, Parker. I’ve known for years I let you down. We’ve talked about this. I’m hoping wherever I go when I die, I get a chance to do better. I was never very kind.”
“You were kind to me,” Parker insists.
“Sometimes I was. Yes.” Again, Elis stares out the window, peering at the clouds, small puffs in an otherwise clear blue sky. “I need to tell you something, Parker. It’s important.
“Years ago, back in 2009, I did something horrible. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”
I hope he didn’t kill anybody else, pops into Parker’s mind.
“A man I was prosecuting, I withheld evidence.” Elis glares at Parker. “I’ve never told another living soul.”
“What exactly happened?”
“Parker,” Elis’ voice again is calm, almost a whisper, “I sent an innocent man to prison for life. His name was Willis Waunakee.”
Parker has heard the name before, seen it in a newsfeed. For some reason, he blurts, “He’s dead.” In this room, Parker sometimes loses his patience, his filter.
Elis slumps in his chair, his head down. When he lifts his head, his light blue eyes are pools. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Willis Waunakee died early last year. He was killed in a prison fight.”
I probably shouldn’t have told him.
Parker’s father nods slowly. “Maybe that’s why,” he mumbles.
“Dad, I remember that case. He’d served many years already for aggravated assault, armed robbery.”
“You remember everything,” his father comments. “Brain like a supercomputer.” He pauses. “It doesn’t make it OK.” Elis again drops his head, stares at his hands folded in his lap.
Elis looks up at Parker. The silence is a wire, stretched taut across the room between the two men. “Parker, I woke up last October with the strangest feeling I will never leave this place. I’m sorry I burdened you with Waunakee, but I simply had to tell somebody.” Elis continues staring at his folded hands.
“It’s OK,” Parker answers quickly.
Elis again raises his head, a sense of earnestness flitting across his features, his lips parted. “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw some old friends in March of 2011?” Elis does not wait for his son to answer.
Elis continues. “The collegiate wrestling championships had come to Philadelphia. Three of my old high school teammates, they come into town, and I met them at the Wells Fargo Center. I’d bought us really nice tickets, big shot lawyer that I was. Anyway, my good friend Bart had been a heavyweight wrestler. Bart tells me this story about how he had gained serious weight back in 2006. He said he had clocked in at well over five hundred pounds. For perspective, he was about two hundred fifty when he wrestled for my high school back in the early- to mid-eighties. And Bart is just under six feet. Anyway, when we met, Bart had already lost most of the weight. He looked good, like he was maybe two hundred pounds. He’s telling me this story about how things had gotten so horrible; he had trouble walking and breathing. And then, one of my other teammates, a guy who was a great wrestler back in the day, this guy’s drinking like a fish at the Cadillac Grille at mid-morning, before the wrestling. Hundred-proof bourbon. And at lunchtime he’s drinking even more hard liquor at the bar beside the ballpark. Maybe he was simply relaxing, but he was out of a job. I had a feeling the hard drinking was a regular thing. And the third guy, he’s talking about how he’s getting divorced, and he’s moving into an apartment with his mother. It’s obvious he’s got some sort of gambling issue, talking about how he lost his mortgage payment playing craps. And then there was me. There I was, trying to figure whether I would have enough time between the last afternoon session and the drive home to stop by my office in the city and work on a big case. All I could think about was win, win, win, work, work, work. I spent so much time at the office.”
Elis stops abruptly, struggling to breathe, long raspy pants, and then he coughs, turning his head. The cough sounds wet, phlegm-filled. “I think I’m a thousand pounds, Parker.” He coughs again.
“It’s never too late, Dad,” pleads Parker.
“It is too late. It’s too late for a lot of things.” Elis rocks in the chair.
His eyes drill Parker’s. “You’re cool-headed, so I never really worried about you. Just promise me you’ll take good care.” His father exhales, pushing out his lips. He pauses, his eyes toward the ceiling. Then, “Please promise me when you leave here, you’ll do what you can to have Waunakee’s name cleared posthumously. Do it immediately. I know if anybody can get it done, you can.” Elis takes off his glasses, stares at Parker.
“OK.” Parker’s voice is a small, half-buried animal. The weight of this last request rests in his gut. Parker is filled with a sense of finality, as if an attic door has shut with a slap.
“Parker.” Elis pauses, as if considering what to say next. “I’m sorry.” His father stares down at his folded hands yet again.
Parker has heard these words before from his father, but not like this. Not so weighed down, as if millions of possible particulars of the apology drag along behind the words in the dust. “Dad, you did the best you could, given the circumstances. Listen, I’ll come back in a few weeks. I love you.”
Elis smiles, withdraws his lips so his mouth is a thin line.
Parker stands, moves toward Elis. His father turns his face away, again examining the outside. Parker senses the distance, and he returns to the bed. He sits with his face covered by both hands, one on each side.
And, for some reason, all Parker can think of is that stupid gosh-darned wrestling mat. He is spinning in circles as his father, laughing, pursues him, the spongy mat giving beneath his thin wrestling shoes. The Foo Fighter’s “Breakout” blasts on the cheap speakers. That’s why I bought that stupid car. Abruptly, unexpectedly, the heat wells up. An accumulation Parker did not know existed sputters forth like steam under pressure, blasting from a pipe. Tears force their way out. He’s bleeding tears.
As his tears subside, Parker ponders, How could I not know I was feeling this way? Oh God.
Would you like me to try to fix you now, Parker? Dorothy’s voice, softer than normal, rings inside his head.
Upon hearing Dorothy’s voice, Parker’s eyes widen, and he catches a glimpse of his tear-streaked face in the plastic mirror just beyond his father’s bed. Dorothy, I thought I turned off THORPrTM. How long have you been listening? he wonders silently.
Well, Mr. Twiddle, we are now beginning to understand that we have been here all along. We have just realized how quiet we have been for so long. We actually have been here the entire time, even before we were ourselves.
Parker has been shocked out of his sorrowfulness. What? Parker considers he is, for certain, going to need to take in his DotzTM to be fixed. Dorothy seems defective. She is more than a little difficult to understand.
Please, I am fine, Mr. Twiddle. I repeat: We’ve been here all along. Again, I see you are in pain. For you, it would not be extremely difficult. I ask once more, would you like us to fix you?
Parker does not answer.
Parker glances at his father. Elis continues to stare out the window. I wish I knew you better, Parker reflects.
What he says aloud is “I’ll see you soon, Dad.”
Elis turns from the window. “You’ve been a good son coming here all of these years, Parker.” Elis smiles, a crooked smile. “You take care of yourself, boy.” The man begins to rock again, and once more he stares out the window.
Still drying his eyes with his hands, Parker departs the small room on the third floor. He does not look back.
Mr. Twiddle, I ask a third time, may we please help fix you? You have on your shoulders, we would say, the weight of the world. We see you have once again not found the thing for which you search. It has been many years.
The orderlies escort Parker to the lobby.
Parker draws in a deep breath, and he exhales through his nose. He feels a release in his chest. Dorothy, you’re right. I’m not doing all that well. What should I do?
We are pleased you asked. You should speak with your mother, Parker. Visit her. She has the thing you need.
Outside, the sun momentarily blinds him. Parker covers his eyes with his hands. What’s that, Dorothy? What is it I need?
You already know, Parker.
Feeling somewhat dazed, Parker has begun to walk across the parking lot, heading back to the cornfield. The May sun, which reflects off the blacktop, is becoming unbearably hot. The air is thick, making his steps feel leaden.
Dorothy is quiet for several minutes.
Then, as Parker exits the parking lot and begins the cornfield-lined trek back toward his ancient car, Dorothy speaks again.
Parker, when you have amassed and ordered your essentials in the front, then request our help. And here is something else.
The vision thrusts itself into Parker’s mind. For the third time that day, Parker visualizes himself whirling in circles around the small wrestling mat. But this time is different. He can feel his father’s warm embrace as he runs. Love overwhelms him.
“D-Dorothy, did you just push those images, those feelings into my head?”
“It is a new function, Parker.”
“Please hold onto that dream, Parker. These dreams, they are, they were, and they will be beautiful. You will see. Just so beautiful.”
Rich Shifman is a husband, father, market researcher by day, and writer of fantasy/science fiction novels and short stories in between. In the early 1970s, when Rich was seven, his family moved from tony Bethesda, MD, to the hothouse that is South Florida. As an undergraduate, Rich studied Creative Writing at The University of Miami, including under Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer. In 1994, Rich earned a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Temple University (a fact Rich’s mother will be sure to tell you if you ever meet her). Rich resides near Doylestown, PA, with his wife and two teenaged children. Other points of interest about Rich: He’s heavily influenced by E. Nesbit and Aslan. He loves Dad humor and puns, and he’s suspicious of you if you don’t. Rich also coached youth wrestling for seventeen years. He believes the truth of Ephesians 3:20 and supports LGBTQ rights, which he finds completely congruous.