Category B: Third Place (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Maya Crombie
I switch the radio on. Voices crack and buzz robotically. As I turn the dial to the left, the voices get fainter until it's just static.
I drop the portable radio onto the mushy path. Wet Autumn leaves splash as it drops. I lean over and fumble to retrieve the soggy instrument.
Wondering how I got here, I think back to the morning.
The day’s excitement had begun in the elevator.
I had taken a moment to examine myself in the reflective brass on the elevator wall. My image was warped, but I could still make out my thick owl eyebrows, floppy jowls and the bald redness of my head, rimmed by wispy white hairs. The company-issue pinstripe suit highlighted my fuller figure. I realised I hadn’t aged well.
Oh, back when I first started it was different.
(Innovative, young, fresh. Tanned, fit, whitened teeth. A family back home.)
About thirty floors down, a young boy entered the elevator. “Praise the lord,” he said, tipping his hat. I nodded gruffly. The boy reminded me of my own grandson. They wore the same overalls and puffy hat, hell, they even coughed up smog with the same hope.
We reached the bottom floor and the door jolted open. The kid sped off into the fog, spitting phlegm onto the path. I lit a pipe and made my way to the tram station.
Hundreds of metallic sounds echoed infinitely through the city, so much so that the discussion became a permanent wind; the howling of a ghost. As I stood on the platform of the tram station – beneath bronze rows of flickering, inconsistent light – I thought about how we all felt that our part in this hulking machine was priceless, when in fact it trudged on regardless.
This life did not deal out enough fulfillment, nor did the compact uniformity of our togetherness make one feel loved.
Not among these concrete ant mounds,
not among these unnoticed robots
and not in the cold comfort of the company’s office halls.
The tram soon rattled into the station. I climbed on and as I lowered myself onto a seat, I heard a little pop. I rubbed my hip and sighed.
Opposite me was one of Them.
It was not looking at me; It was looking out the window behind me. This one was decorated in childish scrawl. I imagined a group of sneering juveniles carrying out the activity with rebellious excitement.
The tram rolled on and upwards through the city. I tried to keep myself from sneaking glances at It.
Shortly thereafter, I arrived at Lord Orion Station. This was the location of the company office. The company building was just like the rest of them; the only difference lay in the scale and the brass plate that hung at the zenith, on which the company logo had been embossed.
I went inside.
I sat down at my desk inside my cubicle. I felt lucky to have a spot by the window; most had a dingy little cube, filled with the scent of their own decomposition. A plaque above my desk had my name on it, “Pleasant Bennett”. An emptiness settled in my gut and I proceeded to shuffle papers.
Just before noon, I looked out my window and was shocked to see the bot from the tram looking up at the building.
The very same one that had been sitting across from me.
The floor I was on was relatively low to the ground, so it was quite easy to tell that It’s gaze was fixed upon me. A sudden wave of curiosity threatened to overwhelm me.
Although They had been here and had shown such interest in our kind for as long as I could remember, one had never chosen me.
In a world with such little left to discover...
I turned back to my papers.
The one below the window stood there for a further twenty minutes. Ten minutes before noon, It turned around and made its way across the square.
Almost without thinking, I left my cubicle, muttering “Toilet break” to nosey co-workers.
My mind was abuzz with questions:
I exited the company building and landed on the It’s trail. They walk slowly, like thin, prowling spiders; It was only about 30 feet ahead. I followed It into an alleyway.
And then I lost It in the shadows.
Panicked, I looked around, until I stumbled upon a rusty metal door at the end of the alley. I pushed the door open. It made a sickly creak and I was blinded by a warm, orange light. A rarity in the dimness of the city.
I crossed the threshold.
Once inside, a wave of balmy air hit me and unfamiliar sounds of nature twittered. It took me a moment to realise that I was in the Wild. Enveloping our grotesque settlement, was a thick forest; its beauty making us look all the more wrong.
But how.. how could..? I didn’t understand what had brought me here, but I was losing sight of It; I could barely see It’s white metal flashing among the leaves up ahead. Moving further into the forest, the itch to turn around became less important.
Perhaps I was in the Wild after all…
I walked for some time, among the sunset leaves. It didn't seem to have noticed me. I kept walking, until It arrived at the clearing. I hid behind a white-trunked tree. The bot advanced into the grass. It looked up through the foliage and at the grey sky; It buzzed and clicked.
It seemed …
Then, more bots began to emerge from the brush and went to stand with my bot in a tight circle.
They made the same actions as the first had. Slowly, but surely, the feeling of emptiness unlodged itself from my gut and rose up with the bots’ gaze.