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May 20, 2024

A Perfectly Reasonable Response

By Will Willoughby (short, PG-13)

Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

Will Willoughby’s short stories often feature characters facing absurd, funny/sad situations. He earned his English degree from the University of New Hampshire and now lives in southern Maine with his wife, his daughter, and his potato-colored dog, Charlie.

~~~

The café itself isn’t disgusting. It has everything required by Maine state law: charming brick walls, a heady dark-roast smell, soulful people slouched over laptops. And it’s a good place to clear my head before my father’s funeral. He didn’t, according to my sister, go gently. She told me to skip the funeral, but I thought I’d surprise them. So now, after three hours on the road, I feel I’ve earned a moment of peace before heading into whatever I’m heading into. When I sit down with my mug, though, I see something that’s the opposite of peace. A thin man in his sixties is sitting flat-kneed against the wall in the corner, groaning so low I can barely hear him through the indie guitar music.

I don’t blame him. He’s more than just thin. He’s attenuated. Diminished. Smaller than he should be. It doesn’t rattle me at first. I’ve heard about this on NPR. This man—specifically, his skin, muscle, fat, tendons, and so on—is steadily being eaten away. According to the radio, malicious software has turned a common brand of medical nanobots into something “deleterious to human health.” It’s not a death sentence, though. There’s a free app you can use to ping the bots with code that will reactivate healing mode.

But that’s true only if you get there in time. This man, washed up in the corner of a café, can barely move. Broad areas of skin on his arms and legs are as pink as raw hamburger.

He’s bald and unshaven, and his clothes are loose on him—olive cargo shorts, sneakers without socks, and an untucked two-tone shirt, which he occasionally lifts from his pitted skin. Every so often, he raises his beachball head to look around. His eyes have the madcap asymmetry of a formerly convivial person. He used to be a cannonballer, this guy. A giver of piercing whistles at high school graduations. Somebody who’d whoop and play cornhole with a koozied can of beer in his nondominant hand.

But this is all conjecture. Whoever he was, he’s now in a state of stoppable degradation. It’s his business, I know, but what if he gets to a point where he wants to talk but can’t? Shouldn’t I take advantage of the talking window now?

So I walk up to him. “Is it nanobots?”

He tilts his unsteady head at me and squints.

“Can I get you something?” I ask. A poor choice of words. I sound like a passive-aggressive employee telling him to either buy something or drag his carcass, including the thick fluid pooling around him, out to the sidewalk.

He weakly shakes his head and lets his gaze sink back to the floor.

“Can I help?” I say. “There’s an app. Somebody—”

A single syllable gurgles in his throat, rises, and then bursts like a bubble: “No.”

What do you say to that? Nothing, maybe. Maybe you just take that decisive no and log it as evidence that you’ve done everything possible to help. It was his own doing, you’d testify at the trial in your head. That was on him, you’d say under oath.

But I say, “Are you okay?”

“No,” he gurgles.

“You’re not okay, then?”

“Do I look okay?”

“No, not really.”

“I’m in a great deal of pain, you see.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Sweet mother.” He writhes as well as he can without bumping into any hard surfaces.

“What can I do?” I ask.

“What?”

“Can I do something?”

“About what?”

“The nanobots.”

“Don’t worry about me,” he mutters. “I’m fine.”

He’s not fine. He’s losing big parts of himself. As he draws a breath to say something else, his right sneaker rolls onto its side, now lacking a foot to keep it in place. His shin now terminates in a fleshy stump just below the edge of his cargo shorts. His other shoe, emptying out, slowly lowers itself onto an invisible gas pedal.

“We should get you to a hospital,” I say, crouching to show I’ll carry him if need be. A gesture. The right thing to do.

“Leave me alone,” he says.

“What are you going to do, though?”

“Nothing to do,” he says.

“But there is.” I look at my phone lying facedown on the table.

“I’ll be fine.”

“I’m confused—”

He lets out a moan that makes a college-age woman glance up from her laptop and adjust one of her earbuds.

“Look,” he says. “I need you to get me something.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘I need you to get me something!’”

“I mean, what can I get you?”

“What?”

I shout, “What do you want?”

“It hurts, what’s wrong with you?”

“I know it hurts.”

“It hurts.”

“I understand that. What can I get?”

“Just outta here,” he says.

Fair enough, then. I’ve done everything possible. I conspicuously shrug, showing my palms helplessly to the ceiling, and then scuff back to my table, glancing over my shoulder to demonstrate, to all those in attendance, my earnest concern for my fellow man.

There’s my cell, of course. Maybe I don’t need his consent to ping the bots? It will come up at the trial in my head: “And did you, at any point, attempt to use the app—the free app, mind you—to halt the injurious behavior?” “No,” I’d say and go right into the unmanly blubbering.

So I download the app, NanoNots, and open it to see a mauve screen telling me to set up a free account. Which I do. I get the verification code from my email, enter it in NanoNots, tap the Find the Suckers button. A turquoise oval bulges and sways until it’s replaced by “Nothing nearby! Launch another bot hunt?” I tap the Yuppers button, walk to the corner, and wave my phone like a Geiger counter.

“Hey,” I say. “I got a thing.”

But he’s worse now. The bots, apparently aware I’ve scanned them, have picked up the pace.

His wonky eyes gape as the bots thrash through him in angry waves. They course in bulges up his legs and belly and then hollow out his arms, which deflate, dangle, and thin out until they’re gone. They eat his flesh and eat the goo they’ve made eating his flesh. His body, now half its original mass, pulses like a time-lapse video of a decomposing mouse. A pinkish mist rises up, and there’s that sharp combustion smell you get with a root canal.

But the shoulders and head are still there. As the final bot wave reaches what’s left, a piston of air rushes up through the remains of the esophagus and produces a terse, girlish squeak. Then the shoulders and head crumble and go away. He’s now just a heap of clothes and a man-sized stain on the floor. After a pause, a soft humming begins, and the clothing vanishes like burning newspaper. The sneakers melt away, the stain evaporates.

And that’s it. That’s all. I consider scanning to see if the bots are still around, but it doesn’t matter. The coffee shop is a coffee shop again. The cappuccino machine hisses. Glasses clink. A worker announces that an everything bagel is ready for Bruce. The college student is now languidly winding an earbud cord around her phone.

I drift back to my table and palm my mug like it’s still warm.

I did what I could. No reasonable person could refute that. At every turn, I made the best possible decision. There was a demonstrable readiness to act, tempered by a deference for privacy. An arguably swift response in a room full of strangers who didn’t, frankly, lift a finger to help. Would it not represent a grave miscarriage of justice to hold a mere bystander accountable for the actions of a man who had, for some unknowable reason, crawled here to die? Who, in the end, is to blame?

Either way, I should deal with my coffee breath. Showing up unannounced to my father’s funeral with bad breath would make things worse. I scan the counter for mints or gum or even those chocolate-dipped cinnamon sticks, anything to take the edge off.

But I forget about it altogether—forget about everything, even the funeral and the family and whatever they’re going to say when I turn up—when the back of my left leg, just above the sockline, begins to itch.







(Story inspired by the following Reedsy.com prompt: ‘Write a story in which someone returns to their hometown.’)


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Article © Will Willoughby. All rights reserved.
Published on 2024-05-20
Image(s) are public domain.