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Long Holiday Weekend Short Story: "Gross"
Author’s note: I do not really write fiction. With the exception of a few video scripts I wrote years ago, I haven’t really written any fiction at all. I don’t know if that makes this story bad, but I also don’t know if it will end up good. I wanted to do something different over the holiday weekend, and this is that, for better or worse.
I’m sending this out unedited and keeping open the possibility of editing it into something different later. If by some miracle you particularly like this version, you might want to save it as a PDF or something - it might change substantially later.
There are some themes of self-harm in this. If that would be bad for you to read, you might not want to read this.
The judge at Bob’s trial (not that anyone called it that, even now) had apparently been chosen with looks in mind. He was every inch the apparent sage. Wisdom virtually dripped off him to the extent that Bob suspected he would have managed to look like a trustworthy source of advice while, say, going down a waterslide or participating in a marshmallow-eating contest.
Bob, who had been born without a Grandfather, had often adopted them. Faced with a septuagenarian paragon of the highest quality some part of Bob cried out to collect him like a trading card, but wiser and more academic parts of his brain prevailed in convincing him that now was not the time.
The judge banged his gavel, every inch of his beard swaying with the weight of decades of wise counsel. “I call this hearing to order,” he said, “To decide the fate of Bob Campbell.”. While saying Bob’s name, he glanced at him and recoiled slightly before regaining his composure and settling back somewhat further into the leather of his judicial seat.
“Let the record show that I did not say trial, and that this was intentional; to our knowledge, Bob has committed no crime. If anything, we break our own laws by holding him, but the world has agreed we have little choice. We do not believe in magic, and we cannot prove the supernatural, but there is no denying the truth of Bob, or the need to contain him.”
“For better or worse, we have to acknowledge the truth of our own experience. Bob is gross.”
Months ago, Bob had woken up in a very normal way on what seemed to be a very normal Sunday laying and had rolled over to look at his wife, who he both liked and loved a great deal. He sometimes tried to determine which of the two was truer - while they had been through a lot together and had built up a great deal of love and commitment, they also got along very well in the “like” sense of things. They found a lot of the same things funny, and she would often say those things. They watched a lot of the same shows.
That morning, he decided that while he might love her more the other six days of the week, he was almost sure he liked her more on Sundays because that was the day they both kept completely free to do what they wished. They’d often go out and eat huge breakfasts, then return home to work them off by watching movies. Sometimes they would go do other things. It didn’t matter to Bob what specific things they did; just that they were the kind of things they would both choose to do and that they did them together was enough.
Bob reached over to shake her awake. He expected she might be hungry, in which case they’d go get food. Some Sundays she’d feel lazy and they’d eat cereal and watch TV. On some blessed and lucky Sundays, she’d wake up with the kind of energy that would result in 15 or 20 minutes longer in bed than usual, followed by even more intense laziness for the remainder of the day.
Bob did not know which of these to expect, but what he did not expect was for her to wake up, look deeply into her husband’s eyes, and begin screaming at the top of her lungs. He did not anticipate that she would roll off the bed so suddenly she hit the floors with a pangful banging sound and scoot backward away from him to the farthest corner of the room, terrified and retching.
Bob tried and failed to calm her down, but it quickly became clear that he himself was the cause of her distress. It was only after his desperation convinced him to leave her to go get help that he found he was the cause of everyone’s distress, and only still later that he found how universal the word “everyone” could be.
“This is a court of justice, but we will find no justice here today. What we do today, we do for lack of other choices.” The judge’s words would have cowed even the loudest of courtroom observers, but today they provoked an especially complete silence; save for him and Bob, the court was empty. They were kept company only by two cameras, each of them dedicated to capturing video of one of the two humans in the room.
Despite agreeing with the judge that justice was not being served, Bob found it hard to hold a grudge. The world had come a long way since less civilized times; nobody had ever tried to hurt Bob. He had instead been protected from the less careful or less moral who might try to. Scientists had worked at what Bob understood to be great costs to themselves to find causes and cures for his condition, to no avail.
Bob was to all dry, robotic and academic appearances completely normal. He was 30, a normal age. He was a normal weight; he was of average attractiveness. Whatever average happiness he had enjoyed in the past was now shattered, but any test run on him revealed a simple, mundane man.
The world of the future did not believe, as the judge said, in magic. It had little confidence in the supernatural. But the lived and stated experience of nearly human on Earth agreed that Bob was revolting beyond all reason. To learn of him, even through text, was to be filled with a deep and disturbing unease. To see him was to feel your breakfast attempt to leave your stomach. To be touched by him was to forget a decade of love in a terror so deep you pissed on the floor; to be trapped in a room with him was to feel as if the inside of your mouth was filled with a live, angry bat.
Lacking a diagnosis, it was no surprise when treatments and cures failed to materialize. The world had learned only a few things about Bob: it was better to be far from him, better to know he was contained, and better to know where he was than where he wasn’t. A man in Australia who was safely assured that Bob was in a prison cell in Akron was not thrilled, but he could live his life, assured that any time he worried about Bob he could check a live feed and prove to himself that he was in no immediate danger of encountering him.
With execution off the table, work had immediately begun on a containment facility. It was built with the full and generous contributions of every nation working in lockstep towards a shared goal. It was perfect, distant, and self-contained but was most importantly inescapable. There was not an inch of it not covered by cameras, and it was built to last ten more lifetimes than the one it needed.
The not-a-trial was short. The flight to Bob’s new home was longer, as flights to the farthest corners of the world are wont to be. As he sat alone on a series of remotely controlled flights, Bob took the time to learn more about the judge. It was widely agreed that he had been chosen not for looks, but for a reputation of restraint; The world had deemed that Bob had deserved to be sentenced face to face, and had found someone who could look dignified while doing it.
It was only later that Bob found the effort of doing so was too much for his aged and learned heart, and that Bob’s small dignity had cost the kind Grandfather his life.
Bob wandered around his mansion slash prison, taking it in. Everything was nice. More than nice, really - he sat on the bed, and his immediate impression was that of a rich-people mattress, the kind that costs as much as a used car. Everything he saw (or nearly so) was like that - at least somewhat better than “can’t complain”, often approaching luxury. Yet as he walked around, he felt a sense of incompleteness he couldn’t quite place - something was missing.
“You are probably wondering why there aren’t any chairs, right?”
Bob turned around and found himself face to face with an honest-to-god robot. Not the cheap fake kind that was programmed to act like a butler and do simple tasks, either, but the real kind; the kind that could plan, direct itself and have conversations. Bob could have bought a small town for what this robot probably cost.
“The deal with the chairs is actually pretty funny,” said the robot, not missing a beat. “When another human thinks about you, or anything related to you, they get grossed out. And that does funny things to their ability to pay close attention, and they miss things. Like chairs. There’s dozens of weird things like that around here. I don’t think there’s ever been a whole house designed by someone who was about to puke before, but they should do it more. It’s hilarious.”
Bob learned that the robot had been a last-minute addition to the plans - it hadn’t been mentioned to him because the manufacturer hadn’t been sure they could get it done on time, or at all.
”The deal is that nobody will say it, but you are magic as shit. Or cursed, or a dread disgusting demigod, or something - pick your poison. So much so that any even kind-of sentient being is grossed out by you. Dogs, cats, pigs, whatever. And that’s true of robots, too,” The robot said. “I have a circuit in me that could run a whole city, completely dedicated just to making it so I can tolerate you. You could buy what’s left of Detroit with it.”
The robot did its job well. As it showed Bob around the mansion, he learned that they had used as much of Bob’s psych profile as they could tolerate looking at to program it. He might have been mostly metal, but the robot was the exact kind of dude Bob got along with; he felt like he was talking to an old friend from high school or the perfect college roommate. But it was only when they got to the rope that he found out the robot could not lie.
“Yup, that’s a good rope.” said the robot. “It’s not like the kind you buy at a store to tie down a tarp. This is a REAL rope. Like they use on boats. You could hang 20 of you on it.”
The rope was nice, at least as nice as anything else in the mansion. It hung from a hook on the ceiling, knotted into a perfect noose, above a similarly high-quality stepstool. Bob was surprised at how blatant the invitation to suicide was, and told the robot as much.
“Oh, that. So, yeah, the thought behind the rope was that you should have choices. It was very important to some people that you knew you had an out.”
Bob told the robot he was surprised; an awful lot had been done to preserve his life to leave it up to chance and impression.
“Oh, so don’t get me wrong - you aren’t actually allowed to kill yourself. I’m monitoring your mood and a bunch of other stuff at all times; if you ever were really at risk of using the rope, I’d take it away. The point is just to make you think you have options.”
Even if the robot wasn’t incapable of lying, he wouldn’t have been lying about the hilarity of the house.
The mansion was huge, inflated in size and quality by the guilt of an essentially gentle people who, while revolted by Bob, did not like thinking of themselves as the kind of people who would imprison an innocent man for life. Thus Bob had a mansion with everything automated building and delivery robots could provide, except what ickiness-muddled architects and logistics people forgot to tell them to do, or told them to do in error.
Bob had in the weeks since his arrival found several instances of this kind of weirdness; he had a box of several hundred cellphones, but no socks; he had what amounted to a working holodeck, but no shampoo.
The robot moved to correct these issues as quickly as he could, as well as providing whatever companionship and help Bob would accept. But as entertaining as a very friendly robot, unlimited airdropped wealth, and riding through the virtual steppes with Ghengis Khan could be, it failed to do much to satisfy Bob’s only lasting problem: he missed his wife.
Communications of all kinds were counterproductive. Bob was not as gross over video as in person, but even taped messages were still effective at reminding her of what he now was; it was impossible to have a real conversation when one side hates the very core of another’s being and the other side knows it. Letters were similar - any messages that sprang from Bob’s hand were loathsome to the reader.
After a few months in prison, Bob asked the robot to check in on his wife and heard back that she was doing fine, or at least as fine as she could under the circumstances. The governments of the world had guaranteed her financial and physical well-being to the extent they could, which was substantial. She could not be said to miss Bob, exactly, since he remained an image of eternal sickening terror to her. But she missed the Bob-that-was, the husband she had lost.
It was the miscommunication between designers and builders due to the gross-induced fog Bob provided that eventually gave him an idea. Every message Bob sent was gross, even when transcribed or garbled to carry the same message. The scientists who studied Bob had checked. But what they hadn’t checked is what would happen if a person who couldn’t catch any of that nuance - a near-illiterate, for instance - read one of those letters and relayed the messaging verbally as best he could, like some sort of idiot Christian to his disgusting Cyrano.
It could be that the person couldn’t relay the grossness just due to lacking the raw ability to do so. It wouldn’t be perfect, but imperfection looks a lot better in the face of desperation. Excited, he ran the idea past the robot.
“I mean, it’s possible, Bob. But if I’m being honest I’m a little worried about it. You’ve been doing a good job of holding it together, but I think we both know that’s pretty fragile. I’m worried about what happens when this doesn’t work. I can’t tell you no, but I wish you wouldn’t make me tell you yes.”
Bob made him tell him yes.
Finding an illiterate in a semi-utopian future society proved to be a bit more trouble than Bob had thought it would be, especially with his reputation. After some weeks Bob’s distant handlers finally found someone willing to give it a shot; like Bob, he had once had a better life before a traumatic brain injury had left him unable to do as much as he once had.
He was more sympathetic to Bob than most, or at least felt more obligated to try. At the same time, Bob-related work paid very well indeed; beyond some discomfort, there were no losses to be had that wouldn’t be made up to some extent.
Bob spent an entire day and half a night drafting and redrafting a message, trying to get it perfect. He wanted to tell her how her hair smelled to him and what it was like living near her. He tried a hundred different ways to capture how happy he was during the years they had together and how much he missed her, but Bob was not a poet. He eventually settled on just describing what it was like to wake up next to her on Sundays, closed his eyes, hit send, and after much effort went to sleep.
Bob could have slept 10 hours but got only two before he was shaken awake by a very excited robot.
“Bob, you aren’t going to believe this shit. It worked.”
I have no idea how this can work, but I’ll take it. I’m going to tell you right now that this isn’t perfect - the translator isn’t good, which I guess is the point. But he can say “I love you”, and you have no idea how much that means to hear from you, even like this.
I’m sorry. I feel like I betrayed you, but I know you have to understand that there’s nothing I can do. I miss Sunday mornings too. I miss going to breakfast. I miss you waking me up.
I miss you. Please keep writing.
Bob did keep writing. He would send a letter just about how her hands felt to him, or just about how funny a joke she had once told was. She would write back and remember things about him - how he was before the change, and how happy she had been.
It wasn’t perfect, but sharing memories of what they had together was something. To Bob, reliving the memories had a faint flavor of living new ones, and in a way they were. A conversation was being had. He couldn’t be with his wife, but he could talk to her. It was the closest he could get to her, and because of that was the most important thing to him.
Bob was happy. He was content not to think about a lot of things as long as he could focus on this one.
Among the things Bob didn’t think about was what it’s like to be suddenly alone and to know the husband you loved is, in a sense, dead - not only one who was absent and never coming back, but who also no longer existed for his wife in most senses that matter.
He didn’t consider the difference between being in a world that keeps moving and having to opt out of moving with it, as opposed to being trapped in a world that stays still in which the letters were the only injection of movement.
He didn’t consider what it would be like for his wife to hear how beautiful she was and how much she deserved love from someone else’s mouth in someone else’s words, or that the person delivering them might be a pretty good guy despite not reading as well as other people.
He didn’t consider that the things he loved about his wife might translate just fine to someone else, especially when that person was told about them by the person who know them best.
It was decided that the robot should break the news, mostly by the robot himself. He let Bob down as easily as he could. He spent a lot of time with him over the next few days, playing video games and joking, and generally distracting Bob as well as he could.
Bob reflected that in the end, it wasn’t that different than things had been before. The letters had always been a long shot, and they were just letters; he had known he was never going to get his life back. If he thought about it, he decided, he was glad that his wife had moved on; he wanted her to be happy. He was fine.
It was only several days later on his way to breakfast that he noticed an empty hook on the ceiling, and that the robot had quietly and without a word gotten rid of the noose.