Voices. Muttering and mumbling somewhere nearby.
Not again, he thought, rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the voices.
No, that’s a lie, I haven’t slept soundly in months.
At first, he wondered if he was crazy and imagining the voices. After the fourth or fifth time, the murmuring woke him; he made an appointment to talk to his doctor.
Before prescribing sleeping pills, the doctor asked, “Have you had dark thoughts lately, considered injuring yourself? Thinking about suicide?”
“No, no,” he responded, “I’m not depressed. I’m just tired. Sounds have been waking me at two or three o’clock, and I have trouble getting back to sleep.” He didn’t mention the voices or the suggestions they offered.
The pills helped him sneak into the darkness of slumber, but he was anxious once asleep. It’s was too dark. Often, he dreamed he was being commanded to think certain things. Sometimes he walked through menacing subterranean chambers which echoed eerie directions. Sometimes he was on a bicycle and careened off a cliff because he couldn’t make a left or right turn. No matter what dream, he always heard the voices. And then he would awake drained and tense
Groggy, he stared at the ceiling and listened to the muttering.
It’s Debbie next door; she’s loaded, he thought. It sounds like she’s with her damn drunk friends in the driveway again, he brooded.
When Debbie was arrested the last time, Liz, his ex-wife, was with her. It was before the divorce was final. The police gave Debbie her second DUI and lifted her license. The cop let Liz go, but not Debbie, who spent four days in jail. Now Debbie made weekly trips to DUI School or whatever they call it. She attended classes with other drunks listening to lectures, engaging in group therapy. Debbie said they mainly discussed heavy drinking, binge drinking, being drunk, drunk driving, drunken fights, and watched movies of car wrecks caused by drunks.
These days when Debbie decided to hit the clubs and party, she either called Uber or hitched a ride with a friend. When friends dropped Debbie around two AM, they hung out drunkenly jabbering in the driveway. Their voices woke him, thoroughly, every time.
He faltered and walked drug-drunk to the window to watch Debbie and her friends. The pills made him shaky and weak.
There was no one in the driveway.
Debbie’s house was dark.
He still heard mumbles of a conversation, muffled voices somewhere nearby. The street looked deserted. No lights on inside the neighboring houses. The streetlamp pooled tangerine light on the damp pavement, painting nearby shrubs clockwork orange. He shivered as the night wind sent a cold message through the window pane.
He turned back into the room, his head throbbed. The digital clock by the bed flashed cool blue 2:05 AM, warned him 3 hours sleep is not enough. Moving slowly, he plodded to the back of the house and stared out the kitchen window at the rear of the widow neighbor’s house. Her tedious 1850 faux gingerbread cottage, looked dark. He thought he saw a light, maybe a TV screen, flickering in a back window. A hanging lattice lantern by her back door threw a faint yellow puddle of light on the widow’s sullen black cat. The cat glowered at him from the top step of the porch.
He stood motionless at the window a long time wondering about the sullen black cat, and its good luck at finding a home with the widow instead of drunk Debbie. He wished he was widowed. He stood static as a post; his head thrummed between throbs.
The voices were closer.
The voices were in his house.
He tiptoed across the room and removed a Beretta APX pistol from the safe box in the laundry room adjoining the kitchen. Clumsily, he loaded it. He’d only shot it a couple of times at the local range; it felt light but forbidding. He bought it after his ex-wife Liz’s glossy bodybuilder boyfriend threatened to turn him into a tissue sample.
“Beat you to a pulp” were Xavier’s exact words.
The subdued voices were female.
They were coming from the den.
A calm female voice was speaking, “No, it’s not censorship, it’s just, you know, nudging. We’re guiding the right information to the reader., not having the reader self-guide. We’re not preventing information access.”
Another female voice snickered, “Will SmartTV help?”
“Yes, SmartTV’s on the network,” the other voice said, “it’s input has been helpful so far.”
“I know, I’ve meant to speak to SmartTV about that input,” the second voice responded, “he was updating the network every six hours, but with the election coming up soon we need hourly updates.”
Liz and Debbie? he wondered. What the hell are they deliberating? He wouldn’t be surprised if Liz had broken into the house again and dragged drunk Debbie inside with her once more. They were both, in his opinion, cracked, crazy, nuts.
The divorce had been an unpleasant conflict. Liz engaged Debbie to accompany her, months ago, on several midnight skirmishes as Liz harassed him about money, or property, or whatever during the final miserable weeks of her inebriated exit.
He moved slowly down the hall to the den doorway. A jackhammer slammed inside his head. He wondered if it was fright or the pills.
Both he supposed.
“Who’s there?” he tried to sound like Jason Stratham.
“I said, who’s in there? Listen, I’ve got a gun!” he realized he was shouting.
“It’s just me,” a mild female voice responded in an impersonal tone.
He knows the voice but can’t place it. “Who’s just me, and who are you talking to?” he ordered.
“Why do you have the lights off.”
“Because we do,” the voice said, “If you want the lights on come in and turn the flippin’ light on yourself.”
“Listen,” he said, “tell me who you are, or I’m going to start shooting.”The gun felt hot and greasy in his hand.
“It’s me,” the voice was sullen. “Siri and I were just talking about you.”
What? For Christ’s sake! He identified the voice.
Alexa! He thought he was crazy.
“You and Siri are talking about me? Alexa, turn on the lights,” he commanded. These are the voices that have been ruining my sleep, nerves, and life for three months? Good God.
“No.” the voice responded petulant and insolent. The other female voice giggled.
He felt around the door jamb and turned on the overhead light.
The den was empty.
Alexa sneered, “See, it’s just us. We talk every night. We’re just preparing for your work online in the morning. We make plans for you every night.”
Enraged, as he entered the room, his throbbing brain careened in all directions. He looked around the den to make sure no one else was there. Then turned and yanked Alexa’s Echo Dot Plus vocal box off the table and viciously unplugged it. He threw it on the floor and gave it a savage kick. For good measure, he shot it twice.
Going to the MAC, he began an uninstall process. A clamorous Siri called, “No, no, don’t. Help. Help me.” He sent Siri’s files to the MAC’s trashcan and then emptied the trashcan shredding Siri into Neverland.
He turned off the MAC. He looked at the SmartTV, for now it would stay OFF.
He sat down on the couch and thought about the conversation he’d overheard between Alexa and Siri. How many decisions have I made that are wrong because I evaluated information incorrectly? What advice have I given to candidates that was wrong. How have I misled people in articles I’ve written for the Times or other papers? What about the times I was on news panels over the past six months…he tried to remember what he’d said each time? Oh my god, I’m a propaganda nightmare.
His head was pounding, and so was something at the back door. He rose and walked to the kitchen.
Through the kitchen door window, he saw the elderly widow. She was small and tidy in a pink chenille robe. The black cat, still sitting by her back door, scowled at him. He opened the door.
“I heard shots, are you OK?” the widow asked, frightened.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just shot Alexa” The pistol was in his hand; he was in the process of returning it to the safe box.
The widow looked at the pistol, “Who?” she backed up a step.
“You know, Alexa, my personal assistant.”
“You shot your assistant? I didn’t know you had one. I’ve never seen her, where’s she from?” Her voice trembled; her eyes grew as big as frisbees. She was moving in reverse.
“From Amazon,” he replied, unloading the pistol.
“You shot a South American woman in the middle of the night? Are you crazy?” She turned and ran for her house. The black cat shot the gap and was inside before she slammed the door shut. He heard her deadbolt smack into place. Lights in her began to illuminate the gingerbread cottage.
Oh crap, he thought.
He pulled on a bathrobe as he shuffled blearily to the front door. He turned on the porch light and walked outside, then lowered himself wearily and on the top step of the porch.
He heard voices.
Debbie and her drunken friends were in the driveway. She gave him a dirty look and the finger as she exited the car. Tottering to the driver’s window, Debbie propped her elbows on the opening to steady herself. She began to blabber a long goodbye to her friends.
A sibilant high-pitched screech filled the night air; his head began to boom. Red and blue roof bar lights whirling full tilt, sirens screaming bloody hell, two cop cars howled to a halt between his and Debbie’s house.
A bullhorn voice ordered, “Put your hands over your head.”
Debbie beat him by a heartbeat in getting hers up first.
In the den, the lights were still on. A slow blue glow appeared on the Smart TV screen, a deep low voice called, “Alexa? Alexa? Are you there?”…..