This short story was written for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2018. It was written in seven days, with the constraints of Theme: Automation, Genre: Mystery, and Character: Babysitter.
It will be exactly thirty-five minutes until mother realises that I’m not in my bed. She’s done this every night since I was diagnosed, waking up at 2:30am to observe me sleeping. Even now, as I near my 34th birthday, she does it. Apparently a side-effect of autism is mother paranoia.
That’s not the point though. The point is that I only have thirty-five minutes left squatting in this bush. You might consider it unusual for a thirty three year old man to be sitting amongst foliage outside a white picketed gate at 2:30am. That would be a valid consideration. However, this situation has arisen as a result of a highly unusual circumstance. Having thorns protruding into my spine and dirt pressed against my knees is a circumstance I would normally stringently avoid. Yet, tonight, and for the last three nights, I have found myself here.
That is a result of my being accused of murder on Tuesday the 13th of February 2023, at 8:41pm.
Since that time, I have observed notable peculiarities in my behaviour. On the morning of the 14th, as mother prepared a breakfast of toasted brown bread and two pieces of fruit (on this day it was one banana and one orange), I accidentally knocked my glass of water from the table. It shattered upon the floor. Instead of simply retrieving some newspaper to collect the broken pieces of glass, I yelled. Mother was startled by my yell to such an extent that the knife she was using to slice the banana slipped. Her finger suffered a shallow cut. Seeing the blood, I ran from the room, narrowly avoiding the broken glass on the floor, and swung my bedroom door shut behind me. Yelling is an almost unheralded occurrence for me. As is running for that matter. Mother suggested that the news from last night may have taken an emotional toll on me, prompting my irrational behaviour. I can’t imagine how, but I don’t have an alternative explanation.
As much as it is highly inconvenient for me to be squatting inside of a bush in the early hours of the morning, it seems I have no other choice. The house I am outside, 184B Junipero Drive, is the house of my friend. It’s three doors down from my house. My friend lives in the room on the right-side of the house, facing out onto the street. I learned to identify her room by the light on the bedside table that is often turned on late into the night. I know this piece of information not because I am often outside at this time (evidently I am not), but because she told me.
If I recall correctly, (which I usually do), she told me this on April 2nd 2021, almost two years ago. We’d only met a few days prior. I’d been walking along the footpath with my headphones in. When I go on my morning walk I always listen to music and I always listen to the same song. ‘Bolero’ by Maurice Ravel. The song is precisely fifteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds long, which is a convenient length because it corresponds exactly with how long it takes me to walk from my front gate, all the way to the end of Junipero Drive, right along Callister Road, right again along Waldo Road, and then back along Junipero, to complete an almost perfect square.
On April 2nd 2021, my perfect timing was interrupted. As I walked, I noticed a shadow following directly behind me. I immediately halted and turned to face this distance-oblivious individual. The figure wore a yellow frock with some kind of light blue pattern across it. Possibly small, turquoise ducks. I wouldn’t usually notice such a detail, but the sun was so bright that the dress was about all I could make out. She told me that she had been following me for a while. I asked why, and she said it was because “I walked like a big dinosaur”. I was slightly offended by this comment, but decided to ignore it, as I knew my stride pattern led to optimal walking efficiency. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing shoes and informed her of my concern for her hygienic health. She giggled, a response that seemed entirely inappropriate. We conversed for approximately four minutes until she said she had to leave. As she turned and walked off, she pointed behind her. “That’s my house, right there”, she said. She moved her small hand to the right and said “and that’s my bedroom… you know it’s mine because the light is always on when it’s nighttime”. I asked her why, and she said, “that’s when I build my forts”. With this, she turned and strode backwards the way we had come. She perplexed me, yet I noticed a warmth in my chest as she departed. I stood there for a moment more. ‘Bolero’ slowly returned to my ear, and the warmth dissipated and was replaced by a clenching of my stomach as I realised the trumpets had been introduced and I wasn’t a third of the way along Callister yet.
Tonight, as I sit in the bush, the light isn’t on. It hasn’t been on for three nights. You see, there’s no-one to turn it on anymore. My friend is dead. Murdered, they say. And, according to her parents, most of the local police squadron, and the other neighbours who rip the curtains shut as I walk past their houses, it was me who did it.
The problem is, I didn’t. It would be highly irrational for me to murder my only friend. Also, on the evening of Tuesday the 13th of February I was cleaning my six pairs of brown shoes. It would be physically impossible for me to engage in both the murder of a seven year old girl and my weekly shoe cleaning at the same time.
Therefore, I withstand the discomfort of crouching in shrubbery, in order to peer through the windows of my friends home, hoping to discover some clue as to who might have killed her. When you need to solve a problem, the only appropriate methodology is to gather reliable evidence. That is why I am here.
My watch reads 2:06am. I’m irritated and want to return home. The small red light in my friend’s window keeps blinking. Blink. Blink. Blink. She told me once how at night, when the red light wouldn’t stop blinking, she’d climb atop her bed frame and jab it with a screwdriver, intending to break it. It never broke, of course. It only spoke back to her. “Sophie” it would say, “I know what you’re trying to do, and I’ll have to suggest that you stop that action immediately, for the sake of your safety”. Sophie’s parents installed the Ava 4.0 three months ago. After she told me about it, I conducted research online and located their website. On the top banner of the home page, there are big white letters placed on a red background. It reads “Ava 4.0: The most advanced child protection technology the world has ever seen”. This isn’t a new concept. Integrated technology solutions for houses are the standard these days. Refrigerators monitor the freshness of food items. Kitchen assistants prepare personalised breakfasts on cue. I heard some houses even have mobilisation devices to prevent their owners from ever having to walk directly on the floor.
On the night she died, Sophie’s parents were out celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary. They were gone from the house for one hour and fifty six minutes, during which time Ava held child supervision responsibility. When they returned home, they found Sophie’s body upside down on the floor of her bedroom. A small screwdriver laid on the floor next to her. She had suffered severe head trauma, which rendered her unconscious, and ultimately dead. I know this because the police told me when they took me to the station for questioning. The first time, that is.
Sophie’s parents banging at the door of my house to accuse me of murder was a highly unpleasant experience. Her mother grabbed me by my shirt collar and began yelling very loudly in my ear. It was very uncomfortable. She appeared to be crying. Her father stood on the porch. He looked particularly pale. I wondered if he might be suffering from some kind of health issue, but it didn’t seem an appropriate time to ask.
I don’t believe that Sophie’s parents have ever been fond of me. The first time they noticed us talking on the sidewalk, her mother rushed outside and dragged Sophie away from me, telling her to “never speak to that man again”. I didn’t understand why she reacted so strongly as we were simply discussing the moral implications of not picking up the fecal matter excreted by one’s dog. Hardly a topic worthy of such a dramatic reaction. After this happened once more, this time with greater volume, I realised that if Sophie and I were to be friends, we would need to do so without her mother being aware. So we started to meet at the local park, Theodore Square. It’s only a seven minute walk from Sophie’s - a nine minute walk from mine. We would go there most afternoons, around 4pm, once she had finished her day at school. She would tell me about who had picked on who in class, and how she liked Greg but for some reason Tom kept trying to kiss her. Trivial topics, but Sophie seemed to experience a great deal of pleasure from such discourse. We would do this for around thirty minutes, and then she would walk home one way, and I would go the other (this was her idea, not mine, I didn’t see the issue with us walking next to each other, as her mother only objected to the talking). It became our routine.
Even with this routine, I got the sense that Sophie’s mother still didn’t approve of me. On my morning walks I sometimes saw her staring at me from her window. A few times she crossed the road to avoid me as I completed my morning walk. I never was able to figure out why she disliked me, no matter how hard I puzzled over it.
My watch reads 2:21 am. Blink. Blink. Blink. The red light is incessant. A small droplet of sweat rolls down my forehead. The air temperature is cool, so it surprises me. I wipe it away.
Sophie once asked me if her parents really loved her. We were sat on the swings, which are located on the eastern side of Theodore Square. Her mop of blonde hair partially covered her eyes. I told her that I had no idea if they loved her. Biologically, it was likely that they felt some emotional attachment to her. Practically, it was also possible that they tolerated her only because she was their child, and didn’t truly love her. She didn’t seem pleased with this answer. She asked me why they always left her alone with Ava, even when they were home. I couldn’t answer her that either. She appeared to be upset, so I swung her higher than usual. It seemed to help.
2:24 am. Fear is a fascinating phenomenon. It presents itself very infrequently in my life, but when it does, I am always amazed by the complex physiological response that my body undergoes. Right now, as I squat behind the leaves, my palms are moist, my heartbeat is erratic, and my breathing is heightened. A full body response to a psychological state. Fascinating.
I had to lecture to Sophie about fear when she told me about how she’d begun to feel around Ava. It had only been a few weeks ago, as we prepared to part ways on our respective walks back home. “Don”, she’d said, quieter than usual. “Yes”, I responded. “Ava is acting weird”, she mumbled, “she keeps yelling at me, and locking the door without Mum and Dad telling her to”. I enquired as to whether Sophie had been agitating Ava in any way. She responded, “well she keeps turning off my light when I’m trying to build my fort, so I try to stop her with the screwdriver”. I tell her that such an action is inevitably going to aggravate Ava. She stopped walking and looked up at me. Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “Don”, she said, “I’m really scared”. Her hands clutched the lower section of my shirt. I sensed I could be of rare emotional assistance in this situation, and I crouched down to meet her gaze. “Sophie, Ava is an advanced software system programmed solely for your protection. Her algorithm is incapable of endangerment. She is a computer, and computers operate based on a series of fixed inputs. You are in zero danger under the supervision of Ava. Your fear is irrational”. I gave her a wide grin. She looked down at the ground, I assume pleased with my detailed response. Her hand remained on my shirt.
I believe I am wearing the same shirt tonight. White with blue pinstripes. The cuffs are slightly browned as I have to rest my hands on the ground to prevent my legs from fatiguing. I return my gaze to the window. My eyes lock onto the red light. Blink. Blink. Blink. There is something hypnotic about it. The way it never stops blinking, even as the child it’s meant to protect is dead. I sit still for some time.
Suddenly, I hear the sound of alarms fill the night air. It sounds like two, maybe three vehicles. The window is suddenly aglow in red and blue flashes. The vehicles halt, quickly. I hear my name being yelled. A light swings around and stings my eyes. My eyes start releasing some moisture, mixing with the dirt and sweat on my cheeks. Before I know it, I’m face down in the dirt, a knee digging into my back. Agitation overcomes my body and I thrash and yell, no longer concerned about revealing my location. I’m dragged towards the vehicles, which I now recognise as belonging to the police force. My face is pushed up against the back window. Everything is loud. Everything is bright. A wave of nausea grips me. I turn my head back towards the house and blink to clear my eyes. The red light blinks back.