The cement was a cold familiar feeling against my cheek.
How did I get here? Where is here? I raised my head. It felt like someone had tackled me, like when I was a kid playing street football. The world wouldn’t focus – a pedestrian stepped around me as if I had typhoid. I sat up, slowly, and scooted back towards the nearest building. I shook my head to clear it, but that only intensified the throbbing. There was an elevated drone stop to my right. I could make out a pretty lady standing on top of it with flowing red hair. She looked down at me and met my eyes. I think I smiled, but she quickly turned away, preferring to stare into the sky.
I wanted to tell that pretty lady that I wasn’t always like this. I was somebody. I used to own a business. I had two houses, and four cars at one time. I was Tommy Sprinkle, the legendary Ice Cream store magnate. College football star.
And yes, my real last name was Sprinkle and with a name like that, ice cream could be considered destiny. It seemed as much when I opened one, then two, then four stores in the Northwest.
Then it all came down around me. Melted, I’d say, if I were trying to be funny.
I used to be funny. I was the party guy – dancing, raves, restaurants, didn’t matter. I’d pay for it all, too. Funny, rich, and generous. And what gratitude did I get? Nothing. You know who your real friends are when you stumble. They say its tough to know who your friends are if your either beautiful or rich. I was both.
They abandoned me, even Jennifer. My wife. The love of my life. Gone.
No…no…I wasn’t a good husband or father.
I don’t know where they are. Why is it so bright out here when it’s raining? Seattle clouds were so strange. They weren’t like this in Jersey. There it’d look like the apocalypse before it rained, dump buckets, and then went on with their business, leaving us with the sun. Seattle’s stainless steel skies stuck around. This is where they hung out. Rain seemed a secondary function.
Soon the air shuttle came, a massive autonomous quadcopter descended onto the platform above me. Suddenly the pretty lady screeched and ran down from the elevated landing platform, chasing a package she’d dropped. The quadcopters may have helped solve the traffic congestion, but everyone hated the way they blew the hell out of everything.
I had to do something. I bolted and the instincts of playing Tight End for Washington State University kicked in. I dove for the package, and grabbed it – a complete pass!
Pain, delayed by adrenaline, shot through my body as I bounced and slid against the cement. The package slipped as I recoiled in pain, and it hit the edge of the puddle.
“Oooops,” I grunted.
A red-haired lady came running and was soon standing right over me. She was even prettier than I thought. Mid-thirties, green eyes, like my Jennifer, and she smelled like roses.
“I think it just got a bit wet,” I said, picking it up.
She looked at me sadly and reached out for it.
“Thank you, sir, I hope you didn’t hurt yourself. I’m such a klutz!”
I gave it to her. “You’re not a klutz. Those quadcopters are nuts.…”
“Yes, they sure are. Well….thank you. Can I help you up?”
My pride kicked in hard. I snapped up, like I was twenty years old, despite every bit of my body protesting.
“Nope. I’m fit as a fiddle,” I said, leaning a bit backward for some reason.
She was as tall as me, with her high heels on. She had a beige long coat and a shopping bag from Nike.
“Well, I do appreciate it. Its shoe for my daughter, and you saved them. Do you have an e-badge that I can scan? I’d love to give you something.”
“No I don’t…I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s me who’s sorry I just don’t carry cash….well…have a great day. And thanks again for getting my package. I have to get on this or it’ll leave me here in the rain!” She said, and then looked uncomfortable, as if she realized that was exactly my fate, twenty-four-seven.
E-badges. That stupid program where a homeless person gets a badge that people can scan and donate to. Then you use the badge to buy stuff with. I didn’t want to be tracked by the System. That’s not going to happen. No, I’ll use cash, thank you. I’ll get back on my feet without all that. I read a few years back, when the System was launched, that they had these camps they’d send you to if you didn’t do things there way, and it was a Darwinian struggle to survive. Some reports on the Internet said there was rampant cannibalism on these facilities.
Nope. Not going to happen.
I watched the pretty lady get into the air shuttle, along with a few others, and then it flew off, leaving a mini-typhoon that blew filthy oak leaves and litter into my face. The propellors dusted up so much wind I felt dry now, but frigid. I found out quickly what parts of me were wet, from rain, urine, or both. It was growing darker now – which meant it was around 5:30 pm. But what day was it?
A police siren shoots by. I squint to see what street I’m on. Denny Way. Another passerby scoots by me quickly, this one on one of those damn e-bikes. You never hear those things until its too late. I feel a sharp pain in my stomach. Hunger. I don’t remember when I ate last, other than those special brownies. I forced myself to concentrate but I remembered only bits and pieces of the past few days.
Almost as an answer, I saw a poster on a power box.
Homeless? Need food? Come to HomeFirst, 2nd and Pine street! Keep your pets!
Phhttt. Another System facility. It’s like a prison over there. Sure it was a bed, but no privacy at all.
I continued down Denny Way. I put my hand in my trench coat pocket and was pleased to find a tiny piece of brownie in there. Where did that come from? I was starting to sober up a bit more. I knew this because more and more of my body hurt. I looked at my hand. It was all cut up, and it couldn’t have been saving that lady’s package.
A short burst of memory hit me –
Home. Stormed in, pushed into Bryce’s room. Smashed his glass football. Took money. Jennifer fighting with me. I shove her, yelling. I’m trying to help her up. But she’s furious. Calls for help. I run….Then a pot store. I buy alcohol and brownies.
Good lord, what have I done? When was that? What day is it?
Denny Way was bustling. I couldn’t remember the date. I’d have to spy some sort of news feed somewhere. Was it close to Thanksgiving?
A few steps further, and I saw it, even in dull ambient light of Seattle dusk. A hot dog. It was nearly pristine, having only one or two bites out of it. I picked it up quickly, darting my eyes around to see if anyone noticed. If anyone saw, no one let on. I bit into the dog. It was freezing cold. With onions and relish. I hate relish, but it’ll have to do. But I need this warmed up. I kept walking, looking for a nearby 7-11….use their microwave. That’ll work.
Bitting into a half-eaten hot-dog, I saw a poster on the wall – “Free mental health evaluations, 2nd and Pike Street.”
It had to be worth a try.
The Recovery Center was nice and warm. I scanned about, and there was media wall with a broadcast going. November 2nd. I hadn’t missed Thanksgiving. Not that it mattered, I hadn’t been home for over three years now.
They put me in a little room. All white. A cot to sit on and nothing else. A lady entered, who I knew would be a social caseworker. She stared at her hand-held as she walked in. e. An older lady this time. Asian descent.
“My name is Amy Stone. I am your caseworker, Mr. Sprinkle. I am going to help you navigate the System.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “I’m glad you came in. I see you have used System resources before.”
“Yeah, I tried that HouseFirst program.”
It wasn’t private, but at least they let me drink in there in peace while I tried to put my life together.
“Well, you did fight with people in your area. I don’t think that’s the answer.”
“I scuffled with one guy! What then?”
She punched a few times on her large handheld.
“Based on your profile and the artificial intelligence aided analysis, we think a mental health approach has a high chance of succeeding.”
“I’m not crazy!” I said.
“It’s either the next stage in the System or you risk imprisonment or violence on the streets of Seattle in the winter, Mr. Sprinkle. This complex is special. It helps addicts and alcoholics.”
They escorted me back to my little room. There were people wandering all over the Center, one older guy, a white dude, hair down to his shoulders, pacing around like a medieval wizard trying to remember a spell.
I laid down on the cot as exhaustion came upon me, and I folded myself as small as I could, in a fetal position, and fell asleep, only to be woken by Amy Stone.
“Mr. Sprinkle! Are you okay? You were dreaming, and screaming.”
“I was screaming?”
I had this awful feeling of dread.
“Ms. Stone, I think I need to see if I’m crazy.”
I was in an unmarked van going to the Everett Mental Health Complex, like a piece of meat going to the slaughter. I learned later that it was called the Brain Box. White alabaster spires on each corner gave it the look of a citadel. The fence was cleverly hidden – some fence, some landscape, but it was obvious that once someone checked into this place, they probably weren’t leaving.
The first week was a battery of tests, feeling more like a patient than a prisoner. Blood test, urine, DNA sample, MRIs, and many personality tests – I felt like a laboratory animal by the end of the week. The days were highly structured, and I followed orders like a zombie. I had disconnected. Nothing mattered, least of all me. I deserved whatever freaking experiment they were going to do to me.
It turned out that the Brain Box was considerably better than prison. Soon I was sleeping, eating, and feeling strong. They gave me a few books about dealing with addiction and then one day they started talking about the conditions of my release.
Then the virtual reality tests came. I scoffed at first. In my mind, there was no possible way they could get me to drink in a video game.
The first few experiences were very impressive in their realistic rendering of reality. I was working at an ice cream store serving ungrateful children. It was annoying but it didn’t drive me anger, which they said was a key trigger of mine.
Then they turned it up. The next day I put the headset on and walked into my “house” as with previous events, and Jennifer was sitting at the table. I lost my breath.
I ran to her and hugged her. She hugged me back, the suit I was wearing simulating the pressure. It was astonishing, but I knew I couldn’t kiss her, or stroke her hair. None of that would have sensors, and I wasn’t putting on a show for the laboratory scientists.
“Now, Mr. Sprinkle, this is a simulation. She’s not really there,” a voice came in my head.
“Of course, I’m not an idiot,” I said, regaining my composure.
Somehow they tied her face and body to some sort of sequence of situations. She asked me to clean up the house. Go to the store. Then she got mad at me for buying the wrong thing. It was interesting what these folks were trying to do – push my buttons like Jennifer used to. It was, I have to admit, a difficult test. The designers had done a good job getting to me, and more than once I raised my voice at this Virtual Jennifer. But I didn’t hit or push her. I tried some of the techniques they provided me, like breathing, counting to five, or ten, when I was angry.
I must have done well because in a few weeks they gave me a job at a grocery store close by. I still slept the Brain Box, which gave me some time to save some cash. Before long I was ready. Did the Brain Box really work? As I considered it, it made sense. Of all the crazies and nut jobs and losers I’ve met, it makes sense that I would be savable. I just needed a few tips and some time. I can get back to my Jennifer, and the kids. I’ll apologize. Maybe she’d let me back in. I’ll send the Brain Box a nice review online after I’m back with my family. But I couldn’t contact them until was really doing well, so I worked like crazy.
It was spring before they let me out completely. They gave me the phone number of my Sober buddy. I was instructed to call him every week, but I never did. Who needed that? I was healed and felt stronger than ever. I’m not their mouse. I’m not in a maze. I will be great again. On my own terms.
Work was going well. I transferred from my store to a Quick-E-Mart just outside of Seattle that needed a new regional manager. Then got the call – I was promoted less than six months after getting the job! I celebrated hard that night. There was a concert Seattle Showbox. There was a local band playing incredible dance music, the wet bar was free. The party went to the early morning, and I felt like I was twenty-five years old again.
The next morning I had the first hangover I had in a year, but the job wasn’t going to wait. Regional Manager meant I was going from store to store, taking quadcopters all over the place. I had to fix all of the stores in the northwest!
Jennifer was next. I got a little place, but I was hardly ever there. It was stressful, this new job, but the pay was good and I was able to control the stress with just a glass of wine or two a night. I stayed in these cheap motels – what else was I going to do with my time?
Work was going well, but I was failing to rebuild my family…..they wouldn’t return my calls or texts. The only one who texted me was Molly. She said she loved me and missed me.
I realized that I need some family time. I put in for some vacation that night, and texted Jennifer:
“I’ve changed. I’m coming over tonight. Please don’t call the cops. I can prove it!”
No response. Ghosted.
The next day I bought her a really nice set of earrings, washed up, and headed over to her place – no – our place, on the first quadcopter that would get me there.
When the quadcopter landed I was greeted at the Federal Way landing pad by three police officers and a police drone waiting for me. She’d called the cops on me before I even got to the house.
Looking across the dirty fiber-board table, Amy Stone, stared at me with tired eyes.
“Mr. Sprinkle, why didn’t you call David Allen before you violated your wife’s restraining order”
“David Allen, your life coach?”
“Oh him. You see, Amy, I don’t need a coach. I mean, what’ll that guy do for me?”
“He’s been in your position. They have the tools, Mr. Sprinkle, to help you. The coach was a critical portion of your rehabilitation. You weren’t supposed to get a high-pressure job without explicitly connecting back with the System employees, and especially not violate your wife’s restraining order. She said you’ve been texting her and the kids?”
“They miss me, Amy.”
“Mr. Sprinkle, you tested for alcohol consumption. Blood levels of .05.”
“It’s not that bad!” I protested.
“It is for an alcoholic.”
“It has been stressful at work. I need to calm down for my conversation with Jennifer.”
“Are you kidding me? That conversation should never have entered your mind, not until you were cleared by the System. That’s the agreement. Even that job should have been cleared through David.”
“Screw David! What does he have that I don’t?”
“You signed papers. Do you want to get better? This is how you get better. The System has helped thousands of people, but you need to let it.”
“I’m fine. Just give me the drugs to detox and I’ll be upright in no time.”
“Nope, we’ve tried that. There is another part of the program that we had in mind for you. A little more intense.”
“What now? Gonna send me to the cannibal island, aren’t you?”
Amy laughed. “There’s no such thing as cannibal islands, at least not in the System. What we do have is data about you. A lot of data, and I’m excited about our next step.”
“A new drug?”
“Nope. No more drugs. We have a mechanism, a partner that will never leave your side.”
“I’m not going to live with this David Allen person!”
“It’s not a person. We’re assigning you an artificial coach.”
“A robot assistant that was designed specifically for your personality, for your needs. You see, it’s connection that we need. Connection and expert guidance, to get people through life. But human pride often gets in the way…”
“This cannot be real.”
“Well, it is the year 2104, Mr. Sprinkle. We’ve been using bots for elder care for decades now. People snuggle with bots to go to sleep at night, to love on a child-like doll, to take care of an artificial pet, to be loved and to love something, even for the unlovable.”
“So I’m unlovable now.”
“I didn’t say that. Let me introduce you to him – Scout, you can come in now.”
In floated a three-foot-high, light blue robot, looking something like a cross between an owl and a giant pill.
“I can’t believe my eyes. You’re gonna have this stupid toaster help me?“
“I assure you, Mr. Sprinkle. There is nothing stupid about this creation. It represents the latest in AI and human capabilities. Just so you know there’s a little red light on this little guy when a human is actually watching or listening, which will be very rare. This little fellow has vast access to data and can identify patterns that have to lead you down the wrong path. He never gets tired, or bored, and will be patient, more patient, than any human.”
“I have to have this thing follow me around?
“I’ll let him answer. “
“Hello. My name is Scout. I’m your new friend,” it said, with a cheery voice. Its face was big blue eyes and a tiny mouth that moved.
“Scout. Go away.”
“I cannot do that.”
“Then you’re no friend….”
“I am your friend. I want the very best for you. It is the sole reason for my existence.”
“Mr. Sprinkle, I want you to understand that this robot is part of the mandatory criteria that’s keeping you out of jail.
“I have to have this thing everywhere I go? “
“He has to live with you. You need to spend at least one hour a day with him.”
“If you agree, we’ll arrange to pay for an apartment nearby for up to six months. Otherwise-”
“Don’t tell me, it’s jail time.”
“It’s all about the choices we make, Mr. Sprinkle.”
As a dwelling, I preferred the Brain Box, to be honest. This apartment was tiny, thin walls, and sparsely decorated. Oh, and I had this appliance flying after me everywhere.
The first few days I was silent, but after a while, I decided to chat with the thing. Coming back from addiction is a lonely affair. This bot would listen and respond. I loved owls and dogs, and this thing looked like both somehow. It had a pleasant voice, and the best part of all was it somehow knew when to be around me and when to go away.
Amy Stone pulled some strings and I got my old job back at the grocery store, busted down to stock boy, but that was okay. I was going to try to stay away from high-pressure jobs. Wasn’t my sort of thing, apparently. I was grateful that the manager even gave me a chance after how I melted my reputation in Quick-E-Mart, and that I’d have Scout with me.
One night I was drinking tea, alone, like always, and I called Scout over.
“Scout, tell me, why do I screw everything up?”
“Thomas, do you screw everything up?”
“You’re a clever little toaster. You know what I mean. I’ve been on this merry-go-round of therapy and jail and therapy and sobriety and then the drunken stupor for so long, I can’t keep anything going, you know?”
“It sounds like you got a lot right in there, with some things wrong, some choices that were made.”
“But I’m an addict. I don’t have that choice.”
“Do you not believe in free will?”
“Do you? I mean, I’m like you. I have programming from my DNA, and from my environment and that’s pretty much it. Something went wrong with that mess. Unlike you, I’m pretty difficult to debug and recode.”
“Thomas, I do not believe you and I are anything alike. I am an artificially intelligent robot, created specifically for the use of therapy. I am three feet tall and I fly.”
“Okay, point taken.”
“Most importantly, you have agency, Thomas. You can make choices. You have power. Don’t forget that.”
I checked for the little red light, but it was still green. This little box was coming up with all of this on its own.
Eventually, after a few weeks, I ended up calling David and apologizing. I told him about Scout, and he had heard it worked better for some folks. He didn’t seem bitter that I preferred a box of flying circuits to him. He said to understand one thing – the System gave him the opportunity and tools to get better, but it was his choice to live, that made the change stick.
That was Christmas. Then the New Years rolled around, a miserable holiday to move through sober with a floating robot. On the second week of January, it got worse. I pulled a packet out of the mailbox, one of those big manilla envelopes. It’s never good news when a fifty-two-year-old grocery stock boy gets a big manilla envelope.
Mostly official sounding stuff, legal papers, save for one sticky:
“I’m sorry, Tom, but its time for me, and you, to move on. Love, Jennifer”
Scout must have sensed something wrong.
“Is something wrong, Thomas?”
“Divorce papers,” I said as I threw them on the ground.
For once Scout was silent. He hovered over the papers I’d thrown on the ground and then floated over to me.
“Do you require a human to talk to?”
“I recommend that you call David or any of the other counselors when you’re feeling up to it. Do you agree, Thomas?”
I looked at the machine, staring into its mechanical, cold blue eye-things. I was furious, I felt like killing the robot, throwing it into the trash compactor. I’m sure my face was red. What did it know? Then the little red light turned on.
“Thomas, this is Amy Stone. Are you okay? Scout told me about the papers. I wish we would have known. We could have talked to your wife, about the way to do this, that wasn’t so…disruptive.”
The fact that a human was staring at me now was a thousand times worse than a robot.
“I’m fine, Amy, please, I just need some time.”
I called in sick. I wasn’t sure if it was a lie. My stomach hurt, I was shaking again, and I had a throbbing headache. I knew it was stress. I took a walk, but the cold dam February air failed to clear my mind. Scout floated next to me silently. It was weird with him – sometimes it felt like a pet robot, other times it felt like surveillance. Like now.
I knew one thing – I wasn’t going to sign those papers without talking to her. I glanced at Scout – he’d never let me get near her place. He’d call Amy or the cops and I’d be on that damn island eating bugs for the rest of my life. Or worse – something, or someone, would be eating me.
I hatched a plan.
First I played it smooth like I was better. I ate, I read books, went to bed on time; I was cool.
One night, I planned my escape. Scout was in the other room, charging on the kitchen counter. I waited and then took out my handheld. When I was in the ice cream business, we had a lot of electronic security apparatus. One of them was a cage-like device that closed remotely. It was used mostly to secure the computers and other valuables when we left the building. Basically, a box that lay flat, so you could work on the surface, but then close up when a button was pressed. Like the button, I was looking at now. I had several of these security boxes in my possession after the business closed down, and tonight was the night to use one of them.
It was morning. I got dressed, went to the bathroom, both activities that wouldn’t wake Scout. Then, I pressed the button.
He instantly activated and bumped up against the sides of the box. There were slits where I could see his blue blinking lights.
“Thomas, what are you doing?”
“I’m sorry, I have to go somewhere, and you cannot come with me.”
“This cage has blocked my signal, but the System operators will know when they haven’t heard from me. You’ve disappointed me, Thomas.”
The robot said it with such sincerity I believed it. It made me sad.
“Wow, you’re something else. I’ll be back. I promise.”
I walked out of my apartment and wondered if I broke yet another relationship. Can a person have a real relationship with an artificial creation?
It was fortunate I had enough cash to get a quadcopter to fly me to her place. If I had one of those e-cards it’d identify me and I’d never even get to the location, like last time, when the police were waiting for me. I was trying to keep my hoodie up, to avoid city-based surveillance. I felt hunted, like a fugitive.
I landed down in Federal Way Transit Center Landing Pad and then grabbed one of the e-bikes. I had to pay with cash at the machine, and I was off. E-bikes were a scourge to a homeless person – people would ride them on sidewalks and run us over like we were roadkill. Yet, riding one now, I had to say they were a blessing. Silent, fast, and easy to rent, I’d be home in minutes, and talk some sense into Jennifer. But first, a little liquid courage. without Scout around, I figured a little drink wouldn’t be a problem. I need the courage only the bottle could provide. My house came into view, and I knew immediately something was off, even in the morning light. That wasn’t her aircar in the driveway. The drapes were different. It was that and a hundred other little clues that told me one undeniable reality: she was gone from my life.
I lost it – anger burst into my mind like a dog that broke his chain. I rammed the e-bike into the aircar that was there, threw the empty bottle of vodka against the house, and I dashed myself against the wooden door, screaming.
“Where is Jennifer Sprinkle?! Where do you take her? Why did she leave me? I’m not divorcing you!”
I never felt the dart that hit me. Another non-lethal way of taking me in.
Why not just shoot me?
It was my ears that told me where I was, long before I dared to open my eyes: I was on a boat to the final stage of the System – the Island.
They knew better than to have woke me up. I would have fought like hell before they got me on this boat. I felt a bit nauseous – was it the waves, the tranquilizer dart, or something else?
I dared to open my eyes. The boat was a small one, metal, four-seater cabin and then a driver. Looked like an old fishing boat. I looked down at my clothing – they’d changed me! I was wearing denim overalls, with cotton undergarments. My hair had been cut, and I’d been washed and dressed – how dare they!
Looks like Amy Stone had given up on me – all that talk about how great I was and they treated me like a child, a dangerous child that was being shipped to a penal colony. Likely one with cannibals. At least I’ll go out fighting.
Not all of the System communities, as they were called, were islands. Many of them were in the Midwest. Small towns that decided to become more. With 80 percent of the population of the US occupying 20 percent of the land, the government was incentivizing movement to the smaller towns, including using System resources. But many folks, including myself, saw through the ruse – this is a jail – nothing more, nothing less.
It was quiet. I took a deep breath – the air was clean, and I could hear a light rain pitter patter on the metal boat.
“Okay people, let’s go,” a gruff voice called into the boat’s cabin.
There were two other people on the boat, who I hadn’t noticed until this moment. An older woman and a young man, both dressed as I had been. They had long, tired faces that signaled what I had felt – defeat. None of us made eye contact or said a word. We all shuffled down the pier to an unknown future.
At the end of the pier I was met by a woman – short, cropped hair, tough looking, maybe fifty years old. She had a face that said, don’t mess with me. But in her blue eyes, that glared at me over thick bifocals, I could see there was kindness there. She was dressed in simple, earth tone clothing, with a handmade look to it, like what I was wearing.
“You must be Thomas Sprinkle, she said, looking at a small hand-held. I have your necessities bag here. I am Mary Elizabeth. You can call me Mary or Miss Mary. Ms. Elizabeth will be just confusing. I am your liaison here on Sober Island.”
“Sober Island. Nice name. Put a lot of thought into that one, I see.”
She continued to walk the path, ignoring my comment.
“So, by liaison do you mean warden?”
“No, I mean liaison, and I think you know what the word means. If you need anything, have any questions, etcetera.”
“So, are you going to feed me to the lions? Survival of the fittest sort of thing? Are there cannibals here? Just be honest.”
She laughed a throaty deep tone.
“No, no cannibals. But you are to take care of your own survival. No one is going to take care of you here but you.”
She led us through the island, along with several paths, where there tiny little houses everywhere, stashed in this corner and that, connected by a barely visible stone path. She stopped at one.
“This is your house. You are not to go into anyone else’s, or you will be thrown in prison.”
“You have a prison inside a prison?” I quipped.
“No, Thomas, this isn’t a prison. You haven’t committed a crime, yet, not here. Your slate is clean. This is your community. We feel that people in your condition have lost the fabric of the social network. Real network, real people, and a simpler life, with less distraction and temptation.”
We walked into the tiny house. Tiny doesn’t do it justice. It was one room, a bathroom, a small couch, and a bookshelf with several books on it. There was one lamp.
“Life will not be easy here, Thomas. Sober Island is about resetting its population. You will tend to your own laundry, your clothing, your food. We have no money – it is all barter system here. There are no handouts here. There is no public Internet, and no calls out to the world. This is your world now.”
“How many people are here?”
“The population is made up of those who had difficulty finding 21st century based solutions appealing. Most of the people you’ll meet are younger, those who were different sexuality or religion that was acceptable at home. Then there’s the other end, those who lost everyone, older folks. Burned all of their bridges and yet still want to live.”
I noticed she didn’t answer the question, but I let it go.
“Do people starve to death? I’ve never hunted.”
“We provide the proper work for you. You can choose amongst many things – working at the lumber yard to the grocery store to the butcher. Think early 20th century America. Lots of agriculture here too. Have you picked apples before?”
Mary laughed, “You will.”
“I was told it was possible to get off of here.”
“Yes, the sponsor program. It happens, but mostly it’s the kids who get off. Parents come around, make a second try at it. We’ve had people relapse too, and come back here. But Thomas, I recommend you forget about that. Over ninety percent of the people who come here, stay.”
“Does this place work?”
“That depends on you.”
“We’ve had a few. Some who thought they could swim away, mostly. But the mental health screenings take care of most of that. Understand, you are here because someone back in the System thinks there’s still hope for you. You’re lucky.”
I didn’t feel lucky. I technically wasn’t homeless. But it still felt like a prison. I felt caught and beaten.
“Mr. Sprinkle, one last thing. You likely are still flooded with whatever chemicals you’ve been pumping yourself with, plus whatever that the System used to try to make you better. The first week will be difficult. We’ll check on you.”
“I’ve been sober before, Miss Mary.”
“Yes, my dear, but don’t underestimate the quality of the medicine that they’ve given you. It represses cravings and reduces pain. We have none of that here.”
She paused, her blue eyes so bright I felt like she was scanning my soul.
“Thomas, I’ve read your file. You were a man of business, yes?”
“I owned several successful ice cream parlors.”
“So, how much money do you think the state has invested in you? Have you paid for one penny of the care you’ve received over the last three years?”
“I’ve been down. I am down.”
“I understand. I really do. But the state has an obligation to invest in people that respond. There is a funnel of treatments, loosely referred to as the System, they’ve used on you, and now you are at the terminus of that funnel. It’s basic survival from here, Mr. Sprinkle, and it’s your choice to participate in life, in the community, or not. The simplest possible life, but it carries no guarantees.”
She paused, but I had no response.
“Have a good night, Mr. Sprinkle.”
There was a small toaster oven, one lightbulb…probably solar power, and a bunch of books on a partially filled bookshelf. I felt like a giant human in a hobbit house. The fireplace was so tiny it barely fit the pot in it. There was something cooking in it. Chili.
I was starving all of a sudden. It was thoughtful that someone put some food on for me. I ate I quickly and laid down on the tiny but comfortable bed. How was I going to survive without movies? Television? Internet? Football? I grabbed some water and noticed the beginning of the tremors in my hand. This commenced the most difficult week of my life. Mary was right – I had no idea how hard it was going to be. After barely surviving detox, I maintained minimal human contact. Go to the orchard, pick some apples, trade them in, get my soup or whatever, and repeat. The town was small, with a literal country store in it, replete with wood floors and the necessities for life. My new life. There was no easy way to tell citizens from prisoners here, which I appreciated. I kept my clothes clean, and the small public shower was available to all.
Despite being nearly a “regular” citizen, the pointlessness of it all crept up on me. There was no one here for me, nothing. Eventually, I had decided that it was time for me to end this charade. I plotted my end – I would jump off of one those cliffs on the north end – tonight.
I rose out of my bed at 10:00 pm. Most folks would be asleep by now. The outside work and general lack of electrical devices mean early bedtimes for most.
I looked in the mirror – an older face looked back at me, unshaven, yet lean and healthy. I had lost weight and gained muscle, but inside I was dead. This wasn’t the life for me. I wrote a little note, to whoever cared, maybe to Jennifer, saying I couldn’t live like this. I had more to give. I wasn’t a criminal, just a stubborn, prideful ass. And…I was sorry.
As I finished the letter, a knock at the door made me jump a foot in the air.
I opened the sparse wooden door with a creeking sound that seemed louder than normal.
A neighbor, a young lady from a few hobbit houses down, was standing there.
“Mr. Sprinkle. It’s Sarah Brooks, from next door.”
Sarah was one of the younger members of the island, just turned twenty-six. Pretty, olive complexion, dark hair, and big brown eyes. Her arms were covered in tattoos. Her parents didn’t like her sexual orientation, so she ran away at sixteen. Her story made Thomas’s look a picnic. Abuse, drugs, prostitution – anything to survive on the streets for over six years.
“Yeah, I recognize you. What do you want?”
“Well, I saw your light on and I was wondering….There’s a spider in my place, about the size of my head. I can’t sleep with that thing in there, and you’d helped me a few weeks back,” she said, smiling.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” I whispered under my voice.
“Nothing. Ugh…okay,” I said and grabbed a mason jar.
“Whatcha going to do with that?”
“Well, I think I set a bad example for you before when I killed that spider in your place. You see, spiders are perfect friends of humanity.”
”Ick! How you figure?”
“They hunt what we cannot. They do it silently, in a sustainable way, and they leave us alone. We couldn’t invent a better machine to take care of the bug problem if we tried.”
“But dude, this one is huge. And it has hair,” Sarah said, shivering exaggeratedly.
He walked into her place, which was the same size as his, but looked so much more inviting. She had decorated, put up some paintings that she’d done, and somehow the place smelled like lavender.
One one of the paintings of a lighthouse squatted the spider. I did a double-take. The thing was a beast. The island tended to grow its bugs larger than normal, and I couldn’t chicken out now.
“Ahh, he’s a nice one.”
I approached the arachnid and popped the jar over it quickly. It flinched and ran up the side of the jar that I quickly closed.
“That’s a scary one. Harmful?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t really know for sure, but most of them are harmless. I would search on the Internet for it, but we don’t get to do that, now, do we?”
“Nope. I miss the Internet sometimes, but mostly I don’t. It’s so peaceful here.”
After dispatching the spider, alive, back into the forest, she stopped him.
“Thanks, Mr. Sprinkle. Hey, are you okay?”
I was taken aback. Not expecting the question, I stuttered. “I-I-I am…”
“You look a little thin. I have some apple pie I got in town, and I can cook up some tea. Want some?”
“Please, I need to pay you for the extermination or I guess, relocation, of that spider.”
I realized that she was persistent and perhaps a bit lonely herself. I couldn’t help but think of my little girl Molly.
“You don’t need to pay me for anything.…but…okay.”
She looked visibly excited. I couldn’t believe I said yes. Something inside me needed more than pie. I missed people.
“Apple pie sounds perfect.”
They started to eat the apple pie, drank tea, and chit-chatted about their lives and happenings on the island.
“You know what would be perfect with this?” Sarah said.
“Ice cream. I miss Ice Cream.”
“Vanilla bean….yes it would.”
“Yeah, yeah I do too,” I said, and instantly saw a path forward.
Days slipped by, and I slowly integrated into the community, and I eventually found enough courage to ask Mary for a favor.
“Miss Mary, I have a request. I would like to buy a cow.”
“Yes, I think I could add the most value to Sober Island if I used my knowledge of the ice cream business.”
“You want to make ice cream?”
“Yes, and I’ve made a few test batches already, obtaining the heavy whipping cream with a LOT of apple picking.”
He put a bowl in front of her, and apple pie was laid before her by Sarah.
Mary ate in silence, both the apple pie and the ice cream.
She looked up and her eyes were shiny.
“I think we can see if you can lease a cow. They’re quite expensive. You’d have to pick apples for a decade. This is very good, you two. Very very good.”
The weeks turned into months.
Sarah & Sprinke’s opened a small store in town. Pies and ice cream.
I eventually joined the town dinners and became a known entity on Sober Island. At one town dinner, Mayor Holcombe clinked her glass.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to take this moment to congratulate the one year anniversary of some of our people.”
The mayor’s voice carried over the crowd, and I applauded the first two, with a dim recollection of their faces.
Mayor Holcombe said, “Thomas,” said Mayor Holcome, and I started to clap until I noticed the whole room was staring at me.
My mouth dropped open.
“Yes, Thomas, you’ve been here one year. Congratulations. I think we can all say how happy we are that Thomas came out of his home and brought us his gift of making ice cream.”
The tent roared with cheers.
I couldn’t believe it. It’s been a year?
“Thomas, would you like to say something?”
I snapped up, instinctively.
“Thank you, Mayor. This place. I hated it here. At the brink of desperation, someone came to me to ask me to kill a spider and then offered me some pie, and conversation. Sarah, you are wonderful, and you saved me.”
She smiled at me with shiny eyes.
“But it goes beyond Sarah – its Miss Mary, and those back in the System that helped me when I refused to be helped. So many people have tried to help me, and I’m just thankful that you didn’t give up on me,” I stopped there and sat down, unable to say anymore.
I was cleaning up the store one night when everything changed, again.
I was busy thinking about new types of ice cream I could introduce when I heard the bell on the door ring.
“I’m sorry but we’re closed.”
I peered out from my office and saw a familiar person, and thought she was a new member of Sober Island. But this lady was pretty, and well dressed, and came with two kids in tow.
“Oh my goodness. Jennifer? Is that you?”
“Yes, Thomas, it is.”
“Molly? Ryan? You guys look so much bigger now!”
The kids ran to me and hugged me. I thought I was going to pass out.
“Daddy, you make ice cream again! We saw your ice cream at the store!” said Ryan with excitement. He’d lost two front teeth, so everything had a lisp.
Jennifer approached. Her hug was cautious but full of meaning. She was here.
Behind her came Miss Mary.
“Thomas, you might have gathered that Jennifer is considering sponsoring you off of the Island. I will let you know that she asked frequently about you, but contact is forbidden in the first year. I’ll let you folks catch up now,” she said, smiling as she left the store.
I could barely speak. These people in front of me, they were dreams of my past. But one was missing.
“He’s got football practice, and, honestly, he’s still a bit sore about the whole situation.”
“I don’t blame him. Not one bit.”
“Tom, he’ll come around. But I had to see this. I had to see you back. Back to where you were before it all fell apart.”
“I’m so sorry….”
I hugged her for some time, long enough to be interrupted by my youngest, Ryan.
“Daddy, can we have some ice cream?”
I laughed. “You bet! I recommend the cookies and cream.”
When Jennifer agreed to relocate to Sober Island, I felt like I hit the lottery. We agreed after much discussion that it was just too risky for me to leave this place. It had become part of me, built me up where I was weak and gave me a sense of belonging.
With my family here, I would be complete. Maybe I could be the dad I had not been to them for years. I could right my wrongs. Another chance.
Part of the arrangement was that I was to be supervised for any trips off the island, and to my great surprise, I chose Scout. I had felt awful about how I treated that stupid toaster. Can you believe that?
Eventually, Bryce visited me. We had long talks over ice cream, between watching videos of his football prowess. He was a tight end, just like me, but much better at the game.
He asked me if I was cured. I was honest – I said no. There was no cure for who I was, but I was surrounded by the right people and environment, and that wasn’t going to change. I tried hard to convince him of one thing – that I was never going to let him down again.