AUTOMATED: Now You Know
Fiction by Jenna Owen
This piece was shortlisted for the people’s choice award in AUTOMATED: The 2017 Honi Soit Writing Competition. To vote, head to our Facebook page.
You have always wanted to know things and soon after you are born you grow tired of screaming and decide instead to have your first thoughts. But your mind is not yet a person’s mind, so your thoughts are not yet a person’s thoughts. They raw and sensory, just like an animal’s. When it is time for your mother to sleep, the nurses take you from her and hold you close out in the hall. Your is body pink and red like a sunset and your eyes are black like nothing at all. The nurses give you a finger to hold and you grab it with your whole tiny hand. Isn’t our world so strange, says the nurse, presumably to you. You don’t say anything back of course, but you do hold that finger even tighter. You squeeze it with everything you have, your tiny anaconda grasp calming you, as if the whole world can be held just like a finger. The nurse will rock you and giggle, and she will let you hold the finger for hours, saying You’ve really got it, haven’t you; telling you it’s all yours.
The street that you grow up on is semi-bushland and filled with Australian-dreamers. On your street there are three women called Martha, and a spare block covered in dirt mounds designed by a twelve-year-old BMX enthusiast called Ryan. In the space of eight months your father has lost his job, got his job back, lost his job again and started his own business. He is working fourteen hour days out of your garage. Your mother has started your education early, and with her you read small books with large print every single day. You watch television too, and one day you watch a program about a dog and a cat that send each other secret messages in the mail. This grabs you in a way you don’t quite understand yet; every little piece of matter in your mind lights up and your eyes dilate like a wild animal. When your mother shoes you outside, you jump on your tiny bike with the broken spokes and begin to pedal down your street. Categorically you stop at the mailbox of every home, the ones you know (like the Martha’s) and the ones you don’t know (the lady with the chin scar). Your push your hand through the slot and into the chamber. You let your little claw writhe around in the dark until you grasp paper, like some sort of Skilltester. You put your bounty in the basket of your bike, and when you have it all, you pedal back to the spare block. You sit on one of Ryan’s dirt mounds, and in a frenzy, you begin to tear and read, tear and read. Paper falls all around you. It is hours before you will be caught there on the spare block, and by then your little body is almost entirely enveloped in electricity bills and secrets. You can read very little, so you learn very little. But you feel like nothing has escaped you; at least now you know.
Five years after the letter incident, you are two thirds of the way through your primary school career. You have made some good friends, and you are relatively popular, although you would benefit from getting a tan because a tan is currency here. You still love secrets, almost more than anything. You know all your friend’s secrets, especially your best friend Rachel’s, because you are trustworthy and always invited to sleepovers. You are happy most of the time, especially since you got a fat little bunny with floppy ears called Tinsel and also since your parents let you get MSN. And yet, you’re not quite sure how to express it, but you have begun to feel something strange within yourself. Whatever it is you feel, it becomes worse when you are around the boys in your grade, which is almost every moment you are at school.
You are too young for psychology and concepts that come with it, so you change nothing, question very little and let this feeling grow until it stops making you feel strange and starts making you feel angry. Soon you are filled with it, this hot, directionless rage, and it’s now that you begin the life-long habit of grinding your teeth. You grind them most in the bag room, where the boys seem to multiply and where you feel anxiety (like your heart is saying HELLO!HELLO!HELLO!HELLO!) for the first time. One Tuesday, one of them kicks a basketball into the room, and they don’t mean to hit you but they do hit you, right in the face. Your nose bleeds, and blood begins to drop onto your shirt, and cold air seems to rush through the tunnel of your bones, but you don’t cry. The boys shout apologies, but they are too close and standing over you and three of them are called Jordan. They are saying sorry and you try to laugh, try to make them feel better, but blood keeps pouring out of you. It leaks through your hands and onto Kelsey’s bag. One of the Jordans says “Yuck”. They all laugh, and you stand there, bleeding.
The anger grows. Now even when you sleep you can feel it, big, spherical (You have just learnt this word) and caught inside you somewhere that you cannot see.
Weeks later, when your nose no longer hurts and at least two more kids have been hit in the face with sporting equipment, you go on MSN. You sign out of your own account and sign in with a new account you have just made. This new account has a new email attached. It looks like this:
You open a Word Document that you have spend the morning typing. On this document is three paragraphs. They look like this:
Hello there! Thank you for accepting my add. My name is Love Calculator Bot and I am designed by Microsoft. To play with me, type in your top 3 crushes and I will give you a percentage of your compatibility with them!
I’m sorry, I’m not designed to respond to that!
Please allow a few minutes for effective calculation!
You categorically add every boy in your grade on MSN. You copy and paste from the document so your response times are quick. Most boys answer like this:
But always, eventually, something like this:
maddie, Aleesha and rach
Every boy in the year gives you three names. You record them, and then you log off, and you never log back on as email@example.com. You never do anything with their secrets, and you tell no one, because you only wanted to know. It helps you when you know. Your heart becomes invisible again, you stop feeling so small.
In high school you have a boyfriend that is bad to you, but who tells you you are bad to him. It goes on like this. One time, when you are in his bed and he is in the shower, you grab his phone off the dresser. It’s bad, it makes you feel bad, but you were right. Now you know.
In your mid forties, you will find someone who seems to get you. Usually, you talk too much in company due to an insecurity about being ‘the friend with the stories’ and because of this, social situations drain you. With them, though, you learn you can be shit and bad and tired and unfunny sometimes. You learn you can be the person you feel like, whoever that is, because they get you. They love their work but not too much, just like you. They love your friends, as you do, but they also see how Sian can lose integrity in group circumstances, just like you. You both go vegan because you know that going vegan is good and right, but you both cave and decide that you will eat ‘sustainably’ instead. You both pretend that is good enough and you know what ‘sustainably’ actually means. They are a little controlling, and a little manic, but then again so are you. Thirteen months into this relationship and you are very happy. They give you what you want, even when you don’t know what it is that you want.
It is March, and it is coming up to your birthday. Your partner (you call each other this) has gone away with their friends, which is the most perfect timing, because lately you have been feeling you would like some time to yourself, and also you have been worried that your partner’s friends are actually your friends. You believe your partner organised the trip themselves, which is attractive, because you have always loved initiative.
You sit at home. For a little while, the anxiety of being alone after not being alone sets in. You watch two hours of shallow television to dull your brain because it is too early for wine and you will not be a cliché until 2pm. On television there is a program called iLove, where contestants will date in darkness, and, when the lights go on, the person opposite them could be a human, or a robot that has learnt colloquialisms and dating etiquette. You are slightly aware of how good AI technology has become, but this program shocks you. One of the Robots (a XenonRed8 model but named Craig) sounds just like your primary school PE teacher. You guess none right; you think the robots are humans and the humans are robots. You switch it off when one contestant decides that she will give it a go with the robot.
You begin to adjust the handmade cushions on your couch. On your long service leave, you have done none of the things you said you would. Like most people, the things you said you would do are creative things, things you did back in university when you would have never thought you’d ever say the phrase ‘creative things’. You used to want to know things, you were so curious, and now you say things like ‘inconvenience’ and ‘unacceptable’ and ‘we should invest our super fund in property’. You walk to the study, which is mainly used by your partner because you prefer the space offered by the dining room table. You look for a sketch pad, you’re looking and you’re looking and you find nothing but bank statements and electricity bills. You keep looking, frantic, butknowing your own anxiety by now, knowing it passes. You’re opening drawers, and you’re not sure if you’re looking for a sketch pad anymore. You have a jolt of déjà vu, but you don’t connect it to a time decades ago, when you stole letters with your tiny child claw.
And then you find something. It’s not really something, but it’s an unfamiliar thing in a place where everything is familiar and most things are yours. It’s a black cardboard box, patent, the size of what DVD’s used to be. It’s thin, and on the spine there is red lettering that spells out the word:
And then the words:
For some reason you are shaking, which is silly, because the thing you have found is obviously some Spyware program your partner has loaded onto your computer. You tell yourself this even though you know Spyware programs have not been needed for at least twelve years.
You keep telling yourself all kinds of things, but nothing will stop the shaking. You start doing what you have always done when you’re are scared, which is travelling to the future in your mind, and imagining how you will make your friends laugh with this story of your own paranoia, your own movie-addled mind.
But back in the present, you decide to Google. Your partner laughs when you use Google, telling you that nostalgia should be saved for music and movies, not search engines. You don’t mind when your partner laughs at you, because you both laugh at each other, and silliness is important to you.
For a second, you find yourself wishing they were here, wishing they had never gone, and then Google gives you this:
IntimaC is a highly controversial program released in 2034 by the Frankly Speaking (FKA Ashley Madison) group. It is designed to be installed across all personal communication devices in the home, accessing any data that the user deems of interest – texts, emails, internet searches and as of 2036, collated Facebook metadata – and compiling it into a weekly report which is sent to the IntimaC App on the user’s phone, which bears identical resemblance to Apple’s Weather App. Frankly Speaking Group claims that the program helps human beings relate better to one another, allowing for ‘sustainable love through total understanding’.
Your phone rings. It is your partner. You watch it, letting it ring out, you knowing that they know you know. Then you get up, you boil the kettle. Your phone beeps again from the study. Your partner has texted. It reads:
Know that I love you.
You walk to the couch, tea in hand. You turn the television on. While you wait for your tea to cool, you remind yourself that there is nothing wrong with wanting to know things; with trying to understand.
You text back:
And, as you watch the lights turn on again in iLove, you think how lucky you are to have found someone just like you.