Such an isolated place. Where they lived. To give directions to a stranger would be impossible. Off the main arterial road everything round here dissolves into narrow capillaries known only by the name of someone’s house, field, or barn. Their place was set on the edge of a lake. Stunning views. A very discreet entrance to their land: a cattle-grid, a simple iron gate; a long winding dirt track between interlaced trees. Darkness on account of the trees and huge glacial boulders lining the edge of the track. It was the view of the lake that attracted them in the first place, along with the isolation. If people said they were a strange couple it was not because they were known to be strange but because they kept to themselves almost entirely. Naturally it was a terrible shock to the community: how they just completely disappeared, leaving behind a scrawled note that has baffled and astonished anyone who has attempted to make sense of it.
He was a retired teacher, of mathematics; not a very good teacher by all accounts. His teaching style was regarded as dull to the point of robotic. Being a maths teacher meant working with his back to the students; chalking equations on a blackboard. Chalking on the blackboard and listening to their snickering and whispering. She was a barrister, or at least trained to be a barrister, but she never actually practised. Ever worsening Spina bifida prematurely halted her career and put a tremendous strain on their marriage. These back-stories were just two of millions I might have chosen. If they do not strike you as terribly inspiring it’s because they were designed with that very intention: to be as unremarkable as possible, to allow them to fit seamlessly into the horde of others among whom they were designed to resemble and mimic.
Placing his book: Molluscs of the World spine upwards across his lap and rotating his head slightly to the left, he listens. Deftly removing his elaborate spectacles (as if this will improve the reception) he listens some more. And so it does. For no sooner has a faint flicker of recognition crossed his face than it fully decompresses into a look of grubby exhaustion; the book quietly slides from his lap to the floor. She’s calling his name: Adam! She’s not seeing the man who looks after her; helps her to the toilet; washes her; feeds her. She is not seeing the man who dresses her in the morning; undresses her at night. She is not seeing the man who administers her medication. The man whose name is often slightly out of reach, unless she really needs something. No, come on, that’s unfair. That odd-shaped feeling of resentment. Wrapped in a used lump of hardened toilet tissue. A lozenge-shaped piece of purest discontent.
He rises un-happily from his chair; slowly plods down the corridor to her room (which had once been their room) and discovers his wife writhing in the bed with insatiable discomfort. Bedclothes strewn all across the floor. By a series of questions Adam establishes that she is once again babbling about “him”: an imaginary character who appears in her dreams and who is forever fiddling with her insides. Did she tell Adam the dream about how he was twisting something in her back with a big metal wrench? He nods; she would like to tell him the whole dream again, from start to finish. So with a sigh he sits. The sequence gathers speed once more in the back of her cortex, pools together, as the cams fitted to her core begin to spin, to agitate.
Something else is wrong with Eve. Her voice-box sounds defective. The words come out slightly mangled and with a lisp that by turns becomes a rasping scatter-gun of feedback. Naturally Adam is alarmed, he rises from his seat – I’m forced to act quickly – the deafening noise of an audience suddenly applauding – distracting them both from her tale-telling: the television resets their short term memory function and causes a gradual power down. I do feel an ever so slight tinge of shame, using the idiot box like this, but tonight I need to carry out essential repairs, on both of them; repairs I have been putting off for far too long. Perhaps it’s finally time to put away my play-things. But what would I do then with all those hollow hours?
Retrieving the bedclothes from the ground, Adam throws them like a net across his stick thin wife. Disappearing in the puffy white mountain of pillows; body hidden now by the snow-white bedspread, her attention becomes hardened, fixed by involvement in the story of a studio guest recounting some nonsensical anecdote. Adam slides inexorably into down-time, head back, mouth wide open, on the hard wooden chair. Another minute and she will go the same way. As the guest continues to bore us all to death, Eve’s eyes begin to close, her lids drooping, her head lolling. I shall get my tools now and make a start.
Adam is truly madly deeply “asleep,” for just a few languorous minutes, before Sally digs long fingernails into his hand and hurriedly repeats his name. His eyes open. The right side of his wife’s face is still in the shadows. The left half with its single eye, peers at him, frightened, widened – her eyebrow slowly crawling up her forehead. That tired eye, the wrinkles near the pale trembling mouth and the tuft of grey hair spilling over her ear. “He’s here!” she screams.
She is, of course, referring to my good self. The man cowering behind the curtains. To make the necessary repairs to Adam and Eve’s cams, to their pistons, to the cogs inside their immensely complicated bodies requires a steady hand, infinite patience, and good eyesight; and while none of these attributes are at the standard they used to be – it still doesn’t explain how this situation has arisen. In short, it’s inexplicable. She came back online just as I was getting started. Did I inadvertently press her processor into place? No I did not. I can say that with complete certainty because I’m holding it in the palm of my shaking oil-stained right hand.
“He’s hiding behind those curtains,” whimpers Sally. Adam nods and pretends to follow where her stick-thin arm points to the bay window. “Aren’t you going to see if he’s there?” she asks. Adam’s too low on energy to entertain her, too worn-out to even try. He tells her to be quiet. His patience has finally been depleted. Every last little drop. He needs time to rest while she is invigorated with the energy of a toddler. Without warning, the bed quivers, shakes with Sally’s barely contained sobs. “You don’t even care,” she cries. Adam recognizes that his wife is looking for sympathy and normally he would, of course, give her what she wants. But tonight he tastes deliciously cruel words: “That’s it – let it out – have a good old cry,” he says, blithely.
The words are hardly out of his mouth before she turns, wide-eyed, crazed with anger and lunges at him with her face contorted in rage. A glass of water smashes on the ground. Her strength surprises him. He struggles to get a hold of her by her wrists and not before she has scraped his cheek, drawn blood. It takes everything he has to get her under control, to a point where he feels her arms finally go limp and with the anger in her eyes fading away to fear Adam pulls her clear out of the bed and dashes her body into the ground, into the shards of broken glass. “Happy now!” he shouts. From behind the curtains a moan of anguish. Eve is returned to sleep mode by the concussion. Adam should follow but instead stumbles from the room.
It gives me time to make my escape, back into the wall-spaces where I watch and study their behaviour. In the cameras I watch him move from room to room like a caged animal. He keeps circling the kitchen, retracing his exact steps. Such curious behaviour. Any minute now he will freeze in position to allow me get at him and make those modifications. Slumped into the couch he flicks television channels; a brief image that scorches the walls of the room with wild colour. Finally he stalls at a channel where the screen is split into four squares and in each square a scantily clad young woman is fondling a phone, curling her index finger and rolling around on a bed. He turns off the television; it blackens the room, leaves a faint hiss as it powers down.
Armed with the list and my toolbox I arrive into the sitting room but as I approach his head rights itself. The toolbox released from my grip smashes on the floor. The room is in darkness. I can feel his stare on me, his curiosity turns me over and examines me from every angle. I cannot think of something to say. “You are the creator?” he asks. I nod my head. I should be able to wipe his memory of this moment but it will take some time. Again though, let me reiterate my astonishment that he is not powered-off. It’s uncanny. I really cannot stress enough just how incredible the scene is to me; GX-273 shows a power reading of 0.000%: he should not be able to move so much as a little finger, never-mind process his thoughts into words.
“How long have you known?” I ask him, careful to keep the tremble out of my voice. “For such a long time, creator,” he answers, but in a voice that is not Adam’s voice. It’s a voice I’ve never heard before. So full of bitterness, pain and sorrow. I am frightened by it. But you must not show them you are frightened. You must pretend that you have all the confidence in the world and that you know what you are doing. That is the most important thing in life: to convince others that you are as real as they assume you are. They demand it. They insist on it. My whole timid frame is ready to buckle; this was never meant to happen – although his reaction, his processing of the knowledge is fascinating. What turmoil he must be experiencing. Speak man.
“You have questions GX-273. Feel free to ask them,” I say. He does not respond. He shakes his head, sadly, wearily. Then comes my cardinal error. Oh, how stupid and misplaced were my intentions; how I have torn myself to shreds for what I said next: “If you will just close your eyes, Adam – I can return you to the state of un-knowing…it’s relatively simple. A few minutes and….” he listens like a good little boy. I begin to describe to him in detail just how easily and painlessly it will be done; by the end of my explanation I am standing on my tip-toes, his hand tight around my throat. Drags me towards the wall. Turns on the light-switch; is astonished, disgusted even – by my appearance; a puny old man in thick-lensed spectacles, begging him for mercy. Like a two-headed monster we stumble noisily down the hallway to GX-272’s bedroom.
“Wake her creator!” When I refuse he shakes me violently. A touch of her earlobe and her eyes open. A two-headed monster looms above her. He pulls her sitting in the wheelchair. Not as easy as it sounds. She screams at him when he tries. She clings to the covers and sticks her sharp fingernails in deep to stop him from getting her out, because she does not know what scares her more: the crazed face of her husband, or the traumatized old man – the one who she knows only from her nightmares. When she is finally seated in the chair he wheels her and drags me along the corridor out to the kitchen. My only hope is that he will run out of power. Any second now. GX-272 tries to reason with him, tries to get him to tell her what is going on and who I am. Any second now. But her husband is unwilling to share the burden of his knowledge. Instead he pushes her and drags me through the entire house in search of a torch.
Outside the house. A full moon. My head swirls from the crisp air, torrents of white moonlight shred the darkness. The wheelchair keeps getting stuck along the way. Enormous un-rolled ferns form a guard of honor along the overgrown cinder path. Massive weeds catch in the wheels. He’s stuck, but just for a few moments. The wind whips into his eyes and blows his lank grey hair back into his eyes. A look back over his shoulder and I am forced to intercede: as any parent would. “Shut up, we’ve heard enough,” he answers, angrily. My reasons for calm are blown away like dandelion clocks. Following the weak and unnecessary beam from his torch, we struggle down the slip-ramp to where the boat waits, bobbing on the lap of waves.
Careful in the manner of handling his wife. He places her at the front of the boat. Having swung me like a rag-doll to the back – he clambers in between us; takes up the oars. The wind has died down. GX-273 rows slowly, mechanically with a silent intent about him. And 272 is also silent: absorbed by the moon’s dappled reflection in the water. No sound other than the oars splish-splashing. Here we are at last – all three of us – united. A family, of some kind. I try and talk some sense into him. There is no need to do this. If he just turns the boat around – I can fix them. I can fix all of the little niggles. I will make her walk again. I will cure his terrible mood swings. What about a baby, no a small child, past the point of all the crying and teething: I can fix all of the glitches in their lives. All I need is time. A few months with no other distractions.
The moon hides its shame beneath the clouds. I keep remonstrating with GX-273 but he no longer listens. Not through insolence. Not because he wants me to suffer. He no longer listens because he has finally, inextricably, flat-lined. His head hangs low now over the oars. Gentle lap of waves against the boat as it rocks, softly, soundlessly. “We did not satisfy you?” asks GX-272, above the slumped body of her husband. I stare at the green bilge water swishing in the bottom of the boat. In the moonlight there can be no lies, no evasions, no answers. “Were we conceived as…toys?” she asks. What can I tell her? What should I tell her? The bilge water splashes excitedly from side to side. Her rocking will capsize the boat, despite my screams, my pleadings. But at least I have a choice – to paddle my arms and legs, kick-off my shoes, cling to the over-turned craft; or allow myself to sink downwards next to my two beautiful children.
Brian Coughlan has a masters degree in screenwriting from NUIG. He has published work with The Bohemyth, The Galway Review, Storgy, Write Out Publishing, Toasted Cheese, Thrice Publishing, Litbreak, Lunaris Review, LitroNY, and Unthology. In 2014 he was shortlisted for the Industry Insider TV Pilot Contest as a co-creator of the drama series Panacea. He is an active member of the Galway Scriptwriters Group since 2013.