Short story: Open Sesame
Sat 12 Sep 2015
In the first of three weekend short science-fiction stories focusing on the possible consequences of current technological trends, we find a suburban Luddite with her own take on change…
Grace sat in a comfortable chair by the large screen door that led to the garden at the back of her house. The afternoon sun filtered by the trees and streaming through the screen door made beautiful patterns on the floor beside her. Sitting there, during the day she could see her trees, her flowers, her birds, and at night, her stars sprinkled across the sky, making patterns known only to her (like the snake chasing the hare on the moon). She loved her sunsets and the pale blue and gold afterglow that followed. Yes, they were hers, she felt. She had lived in that old house with its beautiful garden for so long and had stared in awe at her patch of the sky so often that she felt deeply attached to all these things. And so much of her love had gone into the garden. Age in her case had robbed her of much mobility, and now when she walked around the house for exercise (with the help of her walker), it was with much difficulty.
Every corner of that house held a memory for her and they surprisingly flooded back with ease now — the patter of footsteps, the excited voices floating down the hallway, the doors slamming in a hurry, the smells of food cooking, and more. There were many of them and some made her very sad. And some were intimate — these she could not share with Sylvia. “Why do you have a pet door, Grace? You don’t have a pet!” Grace would laugh at that. It was an inside joke between them, silly as it was. The big door that led to the garden was equipped with a pet door. It was five years ago to the day that Sylvia had come to attend on Grace. Born in China, she said, and brought up in the US. She was a flighty one, with a wicked sense of humor. And she liked to sing show tunes and adored movies, much to Grace’s delight. It amazed Grace how many scenes from movies she could quote verbatim. It cracked her up when Sylvia did her Forrest Gump impression. “I’ll be back,” she would say, Terminator-like, when she left the room. Grace took to her instantly. Of course, one can take a thing too far, and Grace had to restrict her pitch-perfect ‘When Harry Met Sally’ rendition to a sulky “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“Looks like you’ve a call from George, Grace. Do you want to take it? I don’t like him — he shouts when he’s here. And he calls you ’Grace, my pet’.” “Don’t be rude, Sylvia, he’s getting a bit hard of hearing, that’s all. Tell him I’ll call him back later, please.”
“And do you listen in to all my conversations, Sylvia?” said Grace with a laugh. “Yes, and I record them too,” responded Sylvia. “They help me sleep at night.” She had a sense of humor, that Sylvia.
Once when Grace spotted and pointed out to Sylvia a woodpecker noisily tapping on the trunk of a large tree beyond the fence in her neighbor’s backyard, she rushed out to take a close up video, as she put it, and scared the woodpecker away. “Grace, that’s a Nutall’s woodpecker. And, if I were your neighbor, I’d get that tree looked at.” It was a rather poor video of a frightened bird desperately trying to get away. And sure enough, the tree in the neighbor’s yard was taken down a month after Sylvia’s observation — it was drying out and dying. Grace had sent her neighbor a message.
Somehow Sylvia had known.
She had a memory like an elephant. Sylvia did not think highly of the intellect of elephants, when Grace mentioned that in her presence. “It’s your favorite nephew’s birthday tomorrow. The usual message?” It was Sylvia’s humor again, since Grace intensely disliked her sister’s son but adored her daughter. Her niece would get a gift card.
Watching old detective shows with Sylvia annoyed Grace, with her tendency to offer sidebar commentary. “Sylvia, DNA checks did not exist during the times of Sherlock Holmes! They were lucky someone left behind cigar ash.”
And: “Sylvia, yes I know I said that I would do this crossword puzzle without your assistance, but what is another seven-letter word for honesty?” “That’s cheating,” said Sylvia. “That’s an eight-letter word and besides that’s the opposite meaning,” said Grace. “Grace, you know what I mean. I’m not helping you.”
You could always rely on Sylvia to keep an eye on things. “Grace, the lawn irrigation unit in the corner is not working properly. I’ve asked the lawn service people to check on that tomorrow.” Or: “Grace, your energy bill’s down again — we’re using more natural light now.” Or: “Grace, we seem to have a problem with the roof.”
Romance came to Sylvia in the form of Brown, the delivery guy. “He’s just my type,” said Sylvia, with something close to softness in her voice. Either that or she was practicing an impression of Audrey Hepburn. Somehow she would know in advance when he would turn up and present herself on the porch with a rather saucy composition “What Sylvia Can Do For You”. When Grace pointed out that it could be construed as harassment, Sylvia rather peevishly pointed out that it was Brown who had started it with: “What Can Brown Do For You”. She had proceeded then to adapt a Dylan tune (“What Can I Do For You”) in response. Grace’s threat to reduce her shopping online had a noticeable impact on her impishness for some time.
“Grace, you’re running a temperature! I think Dr. Lee needs to see you soon.” Sylvia could not be stopped when she set her mind to it and Dr. Lee did see Grace.
“Grace, we’re running out of bread. Let’s ask George to pick it up for us on his way here — he’s planning to come here this evening.” Sylvia’s distaste for George meant a quiet evening for her.
That day, it was five years to the day that Sylvia had showed up at Grace’s doorstep to care for her. Grace was watching a hummingbird darting here and there in the backyard when she suddenly heard Sylvia rush to her quite flustered: “They’re here!” It was a little unusual to see her like this. “Who’s here, Sylvia?” There was no answer
from her, Sylvia rushed out through the door into the garden.
Grace opened the front door herself (it took an effort to do that, she was so used to Sylvia doing that) and found herself facing a beaming young man and a cheery young woman. “We’re here with the upgrade, “ said the young woman. “For PAD X-16.” “An upgrade for what, please?” said Grace. “Please come in.” “For PAD X-16, Ms. Jones — its replacement, which is optional of course but very highly recommended by our corporation, is PAD X-35, which comes with multiple new features, much more memory, supports 121 more languages and features a highly sophisticated AI module called AIX-35 (if you recall, PAD X-16 came with AIX-16) and ….” The cheery young woman did not get much further; Grace politely interjected to say that did not intend to upgrade for the foreseeable future. “Would you like some coffee or tea?” she asked the two, wondering vaguely if that was the appropriate decorum for declining an upgrade.
The young man and woman declined the offer saying that they had other clients to attend to.
As they entered their car, the young man who was no longer beaming said to the young woman: “Do you think you should have mentioned that X-35 supports English? Maybe the old bird did not catch that.” The young woman who was no longer so cheery felt a slight throbbing in her head. Nature, she felt, had erred in not making things upgradeable or with an off button. “Back to 71 State?” piped a voice from the front of the car. “Yes,” was her curt reply. Ms. Jones was a perfect candidate for the new behavioral data collection business that X-35s were intended for.
Seated in her chair, Grace said: “You can come in now, Sylvia. Let’s see how long the two of us can last without upgrades.” Sylvia came in through the “pet door”, which lifted automatically at her approach to let her in. She held out a flower (a dandelion) that she had picked from the backyard for Grace. “Grace, why did you call that door ‘Sesame’?” “Open Sesame, Close Sesame,” said Sylvia. And the “pet door” opened and closed at the sound of her voice. Sylvia was back to her usual playful self. The opening and closing of the “pet door” cast interesting shadows across the patterns on the floor made by the sunlight coming through the trees and through the screen door.
My aspiration is to write forward looking tales to illustrate the different sides of technology trends, good and bad. With this story, where the setting is that of a senior citizen, relatively immobile, interacting with her companion and caregiver, I have sprinkled throughout the tale, in a nuanced way, various future looking possibilities for technology, and trends that will inevitably arrive at our doorstep. My goal is to challenge readers to think of and discuss how much of this is the here and now versus the distant future. It is an invitation to readers to highlight the trends that they see in the story (the ones that I have embedded and the ones that they can see through their own lens). This is also a look at the human side of things that technology inevitably influences and impacts.
Hope you enjoy “Open Sesame”.