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art by Shothot Designs

One Year Later

KJ Kabza’s flash fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Brain Harvest, Every Day Fiction, and others, with longer work recently appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Bards and Sages Quarterly. He encourages you to visit www.kjkabza.com for links to more.
Terrance Smythe hesitated in the doorway. The space the Institute assigned to him for the call had the impersonal air of a hotel room in claustrophobic miniature: beige walls, brown carpet, and two potted ivy plants in 630 cubic feet of space. The wall opposite the door bore a single window that couldn't open. Beyond the sealed pane, a segment of parking lot glittered in the sun.
Terry's eyes moved to the center of the tiny room. To that damned pedestal. The prescribed telephone was the glossy black of a beetle carapace.
"Mr. Smythe?"
He came back to himself with a start. "Thank you," he said to the attendant, whose name he had already forgotten. Terry entered the room. He would've locked the door behind himself, but it had no lock. Possibly for the same reason the window wouldn't open. If this were supposed to be a healing experience, then why was the room set up as though--?
Terry sat down in the single chair. His heartbeat felt so strong, it was uncomfortable. A flush of heat crept up from his collar.
When the telephone finally rang, it was almost a relief.
Terry exhaled. He answered as if he didn't know who called. "Terrance Smythe."
"Terry?"
He bit his cheek until he'd mastered himself. This was not fair. The Margaret he'd been bracing himself for was the Margaret he'd known at the end, uncertain and weak-voiced, her sentences trailing off into mumbles. Not the Margaret he'd met 65 years prior, tangy as fresh-squeezed lemonade. "Hello, Margie."
Her voice trembled. "It's good to hear you."
Terry closed his eyes. He hated to say it--he wasn't talking to her, not really--but he said, "You too."
"I bet. It's been a year, then, if we're talking."
"Yes."
"A year already." Macabre laughter. "What've I missed?"
Terry swallowed. It was so easy to fall back into conversation, as if it had never stopped. The voice sounded so real. "Me being a stupid old fool, mostly. Puttering around. I'm calling Ally damn near every day. You can tell it's driving her nuts."
"She still with Steve?"
"Yup."
"He still telling those God-awful jokes?"
"Well--"
"Fill me in, man! I've missed a year's worth!"
Terry laughed. It hurt. On the other end, Margie laughed too. No. Not Margie. The voice of Margie. "I don't know if I should. They record this conversation, you know."
"Quality control and all that," said Margie thoughtfully. "That figures."
Terry bit the inside of his cheek again. He felt disconnected from himself, from this single-window room. In fact, it wasn't like a hotel room at all. More like somewhere between a forgotten closet and a prison cell. Despite the neutral colors, the telephone's dark cradle gave the room's nature away. "Listen…" Terry began, slowly.
"No, I know," said the voice of Margie. "I know all about it. They scan your brain, take your memories of your spouse, and make a program you can talk to--just once, one year later--to say goodbye. For closure."
Relief, strange and sad, flooded through him. "Yeah. That's right. That's exactly it. I didn't know how to…"
"It's okay. I know I'm not real."
"Yeah. Boy."
"Intellectually, anyway, I know I'm not." Margie paused. "I mean, I feel real."
Terry's grip on the telephone tightened. "You do?"
"Sure. But it's not like I have a body. I'm just… floating, I suppose."
Terry couldn't relax. Margie must've heard his quick breathing and guessed his train of thought, because she said, "Hanging up won't kill me again, Panda Bear. I'm just a program."
She sounded so real.
Terry's vision blurred with tears.
"But baby," said the voice of Margie, with that old perfect blend of tangy and sweet, "this program loves you anyway."
Terry squeezed his eyes closed. He would not cry in front of her. In front of this. "Margie," he whispered, into the receiver, but why bother? She was only a program. And this connection wasn't real.
"Yeah?" said the voice of Margie.
Terry hung up.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, November 11th, 2010

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