Fiction,  Issue 1

Cleaning House by Salvatore Difalco

It had rained steadily for more than ten days straight. Don’t know if it was a record. Probably not. All kinds of records had been shattered during the last decade. All the shit had hit the fan at once.

“Honey, I’m stepping out for a few hours.”

My partner, Candace, already looked washed out. Don’t know why she wanted any part of that deluge. The metro was down. Midtown completely flooded. People were getting around in plastic canoes. She said a friend was driving her but didn’t specify.

“Bring the big umbrella,” I said.

“You know it’s broken.”

“Where are you going?”

“To fill my asthma prescription and run a few errands. I’ll be back later this afternoon. Check the monitors if you need something. I’ll be with—”

She mumbled the name, and I wondered if this was deliberate. She’d been acting cagey lately.

“All this rain has fucked up the smart dust again,” I said.

“Really?” she said, as if she didn’t know.

“Screens are wonky.”

“I see,” she said with a swift little smile.

The microscopic sensors monitoring and processing all our data with powerful algorithms had effectively—and mercifully in many respects—alleviated humankind of privacy. What would happen if they permanently failed was anyone’s guess. The temporary blackouts were nightmarish enough.

“I’ll message,” she said.

“Only if you want to.”

While privacy eradication had the predictable benefit of laying bare an entire strain of mendacious and corrupt behaviour, people had not stopped committing crimes, even petty ones. But they could no longer get away with them. Criminal investigations had become a thing of the past. Punishment was often meted out on the spot. That said, violent crimes were on the rise. Climatic and economic upheavals had put people on edge.

“Just be safe,” I said, kissing her cheek as she exited. I smelled a new perfume but kept mum about it.

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

Nothing to hide, nothing to lose, was a mantra bandied about in the early days, after the global Reset. Candace uttered the phrase whenever she caught me fibbing. In truth, all our closets had been emptied of skeletons long ago. The smart dust made keeping tabs on your partner straightforward. Lately I’d been monitoring her more than ever. Perhaps a touch of insecurity—I’d been forced to take a leave from my position with the civil service after a nervous collapse at the workplace. It had been building: mindless routine, meaningless work, boredom. But I was at sea without work. And Candace had started resenting me.

I dumped some trash in the incinerator unit and carbonized it. Counterintuitively perhaps, recycling had become thing of the past. Not cost effective when all was said and done. Nowadays everything was fuel.

The weather screen, intermittently cutting out, indicated no change in the forecast. Authorities urged people in low lying sectors to seek higher ground. Given the smart dust malfunction, that proved to be a logistical nightmare.

Finally, all the screens went dark. They usually rebooted after an hour or so. As no one was watching over me, I performed a little dance in the middle of my living room, flipping the bird to unseeing sensors. How novel! How exhilarating! This was what privacy felt like. Admittedly it was exciting. I continued dancing about foolishly, whirling and twirling, flailing my arms, laughing, until I winded myself. I sat down on the sofa. That was fun. And yet, the moment would be lost forever. My brief blast of virtuosity had gone unrecorded.

The doorbell gonged.

I was expecting no one. When I checked the peep-scan, the visual, somewhat obscured by an unidentifiable white substance, presented a bearded man of dark countenance, but offered no identifying information on the data read-out.

“What do you want?” I said into the mic.

The bearded man stared into the camera silently. I could make out nothing around him because of the white goop blurring the image.

“I’ll ask you one more time and then I’m calling security. What do you want?”

The man turned away from the camera but pushed himself close to it, so that I could only see the top of his shoulders. I glanced at the red panic button. A private security firm—Black Dove—handled disturbances in our sector. Its operatives were brutally efficient.

“I’m calling security,” I said.

He looked into the camera again and shook his head.

“They won’t come,” he said.

“Wanna bet?”

“They won’t come. A riot’s broken out in the adjacent sector.”

“A riot?”

“People have lost it. Let me in. My boy needs help.”

I hit the panic button but nothing happened. The red light didn’t come on; nor the alarm. Likely something to do with the smart dust. Damn. It had to happen now? And this bearded dude, what the hell was he going on about, a boy?

“What boy?” I said.

“My son. He’s right here. He can’t stand. His legs …”

His voice faded and he disappeared from view.

I  retreated to my bedroom and searched the closer for a stun rod from my military days. I’d won a merit award during rod training and had successfully used it for riot control during the uprisings. It could immobilize anyone with a touch.

Banging and yelling ensued. I returned to the peep-scan.

“Hey,” I said. “Stop whatever you’re doing. Just stop it.”

“I need help.”

“Yeah, you said. Explain the problem with your boy.”

“Please let us in,” the man beseeched, looking into the camera with tortured eyes.

Even though a gut feeling told me he was not to be trusted, compassion prevailed. Armed with my stun rod I went down to the foyer and unlocked the front door. I listened intently but could only hear the rain drumming down. I opened the door with the stun rod ready. The bearded man stood there, alone, sopping wet, his eyebrows and beard dripping.

“Where’s your boy?” I asked, about to slam the door shut.

The bearded man nodded. “He’s behind the tulip tree over there.”

I glanced over to the tree, defoliated and silvery in the downpour, and detected movement behind the trunk. When I stepped toward the tree, a group of slick teenaged boys appeared from the shadows, all wearing the latest impermeable reflective unitights and sneering with open nostrils.

“What do you want?” I asked, showing the stun rod.

The bearded man smiled. “This isn’t what you think,” he said. “That is to say, we aren’t going to hurt you, nothing like that. Relax with the stun rod. Those damn things hurt. Look man, with the smart dust out of commission we thought we might see what we can steal or loot, however you wish to put it.”

“You mean, you want to rob me?” I said, astonished he would state his mission so straightforwardly. “Why me?”

“Why not you? You’re well off. You’re in the civil service.”

“We don’t do as well as you think,” I said, though I knew that to be a lie.

“Nonsense,” said the bearded man. “Look at this place. You live well, my friend.”

“What if I resist?”

The bearded man glanced at the boys who murmured and tittered under breath. None were individually imposing, but there must have been eight or nine of them and their youth and vitality trumped me, even with my stun rod. I had considered taking out the bearded man immediately, severing the head as it were, but something feral in the boys‘ eyes told me this would have only triggered them.

“Think of us as cleaners,” said the bearded man, “here to clean up all your junk.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You have insurance, right?”

“I do,” I admitted; everyone in the civil service had insurance.

“Bing bang,” said the bearded man, swiping his hands together. “Once we clean house—and it’s a real nice place let me say, real nice—you file a report and the insurance company will fix you up posthaste. Meanwhile we walk away with the loot and no one’s the wiser.”

I glanced at the boys, who all blurred together like a school of silver fishes.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Just your valuables. Things we can carry on our persons.”

The boys began to stir. I couldn’t tell one from the other. They were all gangly and fractious, their restlessness mounting. The downpour intensified. The entrance canopy shielded them for the most part. But everything was wet.

“Tell them to take off their shoes,” I said.

“Seriously?”

“My partner will kill me if there’s a mess.”

“Boys, do as the man says, and take off your shoes. And proceed in an orderly fashion. Remember, only portable valuables.”

They filed into my house. It was fucked up, admittedly. I still held the stun rod, but with no surveillance and thus no enforcement using it was pointless. Let’s say I stunned them all; what the hell would I do with a bunch of inchoate teenagers and their bearded leader? No one was coming to take them off my hands.

“Don’t break anything!” I warned, but one of them had already knocked over Candace’s cut-glass curio and all its delicate knickknacks. She’d be devastated.

They went for the jewels, of course, pilfering Candace’s gold and silver necklaces, broaches, rings and bracelets. Some moron even took her lingerie. They tore into my personal closet and helped himself to six pairs of rare vintage Jordans. I almost started weeping.

“Hey,” said the bearded man, with a bunch of my finest shirts and ties draped across his arm, “don’t take it so hard. Everyone loses everything in the end. That’s the way it goes.”

“But my Jordans?”

“Hey, you’re sharing a piece of history with the next generation.”

The his-and-her golf clubs went, though I didn’t lament their loss as I was a mediocre golfer. Candace relished having her way with me on the greens, often goading me for days afterwards. Someone even took our sanitation bot, Maurice. That was a mistake, I believed, as Maurice, temperamental at the best of times, would have made anyone who wound up with him regret it. Last year, when we brought him to the Bot Source for his annual tune-up, a two day affair, he managed to escape and return home during the night. While sanitation bots were not supposed to be sentient, Maurice never ceased to amaze me.

It went on for, I don’t know, twenty minutes? I mean, we only had so many valuables.

As the laden fellows departed, the bearded man reached out his hand free of shirts and offered it to me. I shook it.

“This has been strange,” I admitted.

“And bloodless,” he said. “That’s the beauty. And remember, after you file a complaint with security, report it to the insurance company. And forget me. Forget what I look like, forget the sound of my voice. And forget the lads.”

He departed. I locked up after him and stood in my foyer uncertain what to do next, and terribly uncertain how Candace would react to the burglary and my lack of action.

When Candace returned, she looked flushed, her hair tousled.

“Did you go to a tanning salon?” I asked.

She scoffed. “That foyer is a muddy mess,” she said, surveying the jumbled living room and spotting her toppled curio. “What the hell is this? Did you have company?”

“I had no company,” I said. “Not really.”

“Not really?”

“Um, it’s a long story.”

“Maurice!” Candace shouted. “Maurice!” She thinned her eyes. “Where is Maurice?”

I shrugged. How could I explain without coming off as pathetically weak?

“Did something happen to Maurice?”

“Why are you flushed? Did you play squash or something?”

“Tell me what happened to Maurice.”

“They came and they took—they stole Maurice.”

“Who is they?”

“Does it matter? The smart dust has been down. You didn’t even text me, did you?”

“You didn’t text me.”

“I was busy.”

“So was I.”

“You were gone for what, five hours? You weren’t getting your asthma prescription filled for five hours.”

Candace stomped off to the bedroom. After a moment I heard her moving things around and cursing under her breath. When she came out again she was even more flushed.

“They took my lingerie?”

I nodded. “And the jewelry. We’ll file a report. Insurance should cover most of it.”

She glanced at the stun rod, lying by my feet. “And you let this happen?”

“The alternative—well, thank god I averted violence, eh Candace. Thank god.”

Her eyes burned. “Averted violence?” she hissed. “They cleaned us out, you fucking idiot! And took Maurice!”

I didn’t know what to say. Maybe I should have defended my property more forcefully. Maybe I had grown soft after years of being handheld and led through life by the state’s surveillance and security apparatus.

“What are we going to do without Maurice!” Candace cried.

The reality of the moment hit me like a sheet of glass. What had I done?

“I’m really sorry, Candace. I fucked up.”

“You fucked up?” She blinked hard. “No, honey, don’t be so hard on yourself. You didn’t fuck up. You’re on stress leave, after all. Right? Your nerves. Brr. Your self-esteem. Brr. All that. Don’t sweat it. Insurance will cover everything.”

She smiled in a way that made my legs weak. Then she went for the stun rod.

“Be careful with that, Candace. It’s fully charged.”

She waved it to and fro like a sword and examined it with great interest. Her cheeks were burning, her eyes avid. She released the safety.

“The smart dust’s still down, eh?” she asked, as if she needed to ask.

“You know it’s down.”

Without warning she touched the stun rod to my cheek. I collapsed to the floor, my central nervous system zeroed. I could see and hear perfectly well, but my fluttering muscles were unresponsive. Candace stood over me, legs spread, her grin savage.

“Wanna know why I’m flushed, sweetie? Remember Jerry from the golf club? Big handsome Jerry. Yeah, babe. We golfed. We golfed real good. None of it caught on camera.”

Candace gave me another touch of the rod and I blacked out.

Don’t know how long I was out, hours likely. A whirring in my ear awoke me. Something was pushing me across the floor, not quickly, but I was moving. I opened my eyes. The room was dark, my muscles still seized. I glanced to my right and saw the metallic green shell and ocular pads of a sanitation bot: Maurice! Maurice had somehow made his way back home! Good old Maurice. Even in my dark state this elated me. He was full of surprises. And he was efficient, if not swift. He efficiently continued pushing my body toward the incinerator chute, inch by inch, none of it caught on camera.

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Salvatore Difalco is the author of two story collections Black Rabbit (Anvil Press) and The Mountie At Niagara Falls (Anvil Press). He lives in Toronto.

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