The Cleaners, Part 20: Diane the Hero

“Walter!” I shouted, and abruptly, my room came into focus. I was in a bed in a room that was white and smelled antiseptic clean. I’d failed. I felt nauseous, and I tried to sit up, but I was so weak I couldn’t move. I satisfied myself with looking at what I could get to with my eyes.  “Diane, you’re awake!” A voice sounded like a female cleaner. I tried to shout at her, but I could barely get out a whisper. I heard her receding footsteps. I failed. I lay and stared at the ceiling in silent gloom until a helper emerged. “Dr. Barclay will be with you in a moment,” she said, “We are all thrilled that you came through!”

“Came through what?” I asked. Despite my best efforts, I could still barely hear my own voice.

The beaming monitor loomed above me :), “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

I forced out another croak, “what happened to me?”

“Dr. Barclay will have to tell you that. I’m just a caretaker. Melody Caretaker.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said with a bitter grin. “Where am I?”

“You are at the New Haven Medical Center,” smiled Melody. She set to work changing my sheets as I lay unmoving.

Not sure I wanted to hear the answer, I asked, “how long was I out?”

“Four months, three days.”

My eyes bulged nearly out of my head. I ached to ask “Where’s Walter,” but I’d probably used up a lifetime’s worth of crazy in that storage room. Walter was dead. God let people who had passed speak to their loved ones through caressing sunlight, gentle kissing breezes, and the occasional beautiful dream, but it’s not healthy to dream in the middle of conversations with the leaders of giant corporations. I’d heard about coma victims. Their muscles atrophied and they could barely take care of themselves. I was scared to try to move for fear that I’d find out I couldn’t. Oh goodness gracious, what if I had been trying to move, and I was just rationalizing the fact that I’m not moving as that I’m not really trying? What kind of a fool never remarries? You think a dead man is going to take care of you? Evidently now my mother was visiting me from beyond the grave. This at least was the kind of “living on inside you” that I was used to. Much more believable than what I saw yesterday, which was four months ago. I realized there was a growing backlog in my brain of outrageous experiences that I kept saying I would process when I found a moment but never got to. Some small portion of these experiences were natural for a woman of my age, I suspected, but only a very small portion. I could rule out robots right away. I wished I’d talked to my grandma more about visits from beyond the grave before she passed. Although maybe I still could. I chuckled, which in my state was more like an inaudible squeak, wondering to what extent I was demented.

I failed.

Seized with a sudden desperation, I breathed words as loudly as I could at Melody, “Melody! Did it work? Did the Cleaners listen to me?”

Melody continued to change my sheets and did not speak. Then she said, “We heard you, Diane. We had never fully understood Joseph’s point. We had operated on the principle of working in harmony with customers and potential customers, and it pained us to see that we were arousing anger, but as a human with forty-five years of experience, he assured us that we would regret giving into your demands without a fight.”

Joseph was only 45? The years had not treated him well. “Working in harmony with customers and potential customers” sounded like marketing nonsense. It certainly didn’t fit with the Cleaner modus operandi up until now. I couldn’t tell if Melody was saying that they had decided to stop harassing people or not. “You heard me? So you’ll stop harassing us?”

“We had trouble understanding either side of the argument at first. Joseph started out very aggressive and would not let you climb the boxes, and then he started quoting Ayn Rand, he finds her very influential, until you grabbed our hand and led us up the stairs-”

“hold on- us?” I whispered.

“Itzal live-broadcasted her experience. Many of us processed it in the background as we completed our tasks, but I requested time off and tuned in fully. It was as if I myself was Itzal.”

Taking time off from work to view a broadcast sounded more human than robot. “Why?” I felt like I was only mouthing the words, but Melody seemed to hear me, “Why would you take time off from work to have an experience? Isn’t work more important?”

“There are many elements to my work. I am an employee of the hospital and take my Caretaker duties seriously, but I am also a proud member of the Helper family as a whole.” Again, she spoke as if she was experiencing human emotion, and again, like Patricia the car, the emotion was pride. Was it simulated? If these robots wanted to fool me into thinking they were people, they were doing a bang-up job. Melody continued, “By experiencing the event directly I lend my full computational power to understanding it. Collectively, the Helpers are smarter than alone.”

“What happened when I grabbed you?” I didn’t remember grabbing Itzal at all. I felt like an alcoholic being told what she’d done at the bar the previous night.

“We ascended the stairs and you started telling a story about your husband. You were very affectionate towards us.” Oh boy. I would have groaned if I’d had the strength.

Melody finished changing my sheets and took a moment to stand over me again so I could see her. Her :) clashed with her otherwise serious demeanor. Could you even make a serious face with ascii? “Eventually, just before you passed out you warned us that we would regret ignoring the demands of the public. This made sense to us. Much to Joseph’s chagrin, we decided we had fought sufficiently that we wouldn’t regret acceding to your request.”

That was it. That was what I needed to hear. I lost my mind, I made a fool of myself, I even had some kind of severe breakdown, but I did it. I was the voice of reason. I really could be the hero of both the Cleaners and the Anti-Cleaners. I didn’t waste any more breath talking to Melody. I was suddenly aware of how tired I was. My eyes fell shut, and I was gone. I heard Walter’s voice, but couldn’t make out the words.

Dr. Barclay came in to wake me up, announced by the closing of the door and a white-clad figure looming over me. I had only a split-second to register that I was back in the hospital before he started speaking to me in rapid, clipped tones. “I’ve been going through your family history, Mrs. Wallace, and it looks like you come from quite a long line of stroke victims. After leaving it so long, you’re lucky you’ve recovered at all!”

“I left it?”

“Yes, ahh,” Dr. Barclay jumped up and rummaged through his phone. “Oh, my I wrote these notes a very long time ago… Aha! When you were rushed to the emergency room, you told me that you had been feeling ill ever since you entered the storage room.” Dr. Barclay furrowed his brow, “I wasn’t sure I understood precisely. It sounded like you found a … lawyer in the storage room and started arguing with him. Then your husband appeared and took you up some stairs and you- “

“Yes, I remember.” I interrupted him, “Doctor, will I ever move again?”

“What? You can’t move? You should be able to move. Here, try moving your arm.”

I lifted my arm. It was a herculean effort, but despite feeling as if my arm had become a tiny layer of skin wrapped around a ten-thousand-pound bone, I eventually managed to raise it into the corner of my vision. I forced my head down and looked at my other arm, which, with similar effort, moved. I felt the fabric of my bed against both arms. I breathed a shallow sigh of relief.

“You will need physical therapy before you can resume a normal lifestyle,” said Dr. Barclay. I managed to point my head at the door as I heard Melody wheel in a wheelchair. “Oh, fudge,” I mumbled.

“Also,” he continued, “You will require a caretaker.”

I looked at Melody. “Not Melody,” Dr. Barclay said, “She works here as a nurse. You will have to arrange for a human or automatic caretaker of your own before I can discharge you from this hospital.”

I stared at him, then I said “oh!” and pulled out my own phone. I realized as I held my phone that a caretaker would have to live in my house. It would know more about me than a Cleaner, and all that information would sit on a computer in a server farm somewhere. But I couldn’t afford a human caretaker. I couldn’t afford four months in a hospital, come to think of it. “What do I owe?” I asked, “I have Medicare.”

Melody answered, “This hospital is owned by the Cleaner Corporation. Your extended stay and visits from caretakers are covered by our arrangement. Dr. Barclay is a specialist, and under Medicare you owe a co-pay of $50″

Not bad. “Should I call a driver to pick me up?” I whispered.

“Actually, I have one more thing to talk to you about, Mrs. Wallace.” said Dr. Barclay in measured tones. I didn’t respond. Already I was learning to be economical with my limited breath.

Dr. Barclay continued, “You are recovering from a stroke and what could very well be the beginnings of dementia. Based on what you’ve told me, this all could very well have been brought on by the sudden change in your lifestyle.” Again, nothing was required of me, so I stayed silent.

“Mrs. Wallace, if you hope to recover, it is critical that you reduce your stress, or you could have another attack, and it might be your last.” I processed this. Angry Grandma is killing me. Now it was time to respond, but I didn’t have a response. Or did I? I’d won, hadn’t I? Maybe I could put Angry Grandma away. Just go back to being Diane. Visions of pink lemonade and lazy afternoons on the phone with Carla swam in my head. “Ok, Doctor,” I wheezed, “I’m done.”

Dr. Barclay smiled. “That is wonderful to hear. You probably never realized it before, but you’re a strong woman. I know the signs. Even at your age, you can pull through this.”

I nodded just enough that Dr. Barclay would know that I’d heard. The doctor nodded in return. I felt relaxed. In the twilight of my life I’d had my great adventure, and now it was drawing to a close. It felt good. I turned by head back up to the ceiling to go back to rest. I closed my eyes and heard the doctor’s voice again, “We’ve notified your son that you have awoken, and he should be arriving any minute now to take you home.”

My eyes snapped open as a chill ran down my spine. I wrenched my head back to stare at Dr. Barclay’s broad, placid face. His demeanor betrayed no hint of mirth, nothing to suggest that he was playing some bizarre, unethical joke. I don’t have a son. I was stark, raving mad, fine, but I wouldn’t forget a son. “I don’t have a son,” I tried to say, but the doctor either didn’t hear me or pretended not to. I craned my neck as well as I could to see who was coming as Melody picked up my ragdoll frame and sat me carefully in the wheelchair, which she considerately turned to face the direction I was trying to look. The man who stood at the doorway had to bend over to let himself in. If there was any doubt in my mind before, now it was gone. He was not my son. “Mom!” exclaimed Henry Whicker, well dressed and groomed, not looking remotely like a man whose mother has been in a coma for four months. “This is not my son,” I mumbled, trying to stand up and wave my arms, trying to push Henry away, grab Doctor Barclay’s coat, trying to do anything. “Mom, calm down,” crooned Henry as Melody handed him the wheelchair. “Everything’s fine now. We’re going to take you home.”

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.


  1. I love the ending of this chapter. It’s such a scary situation, and it brings the difficulty in knowing whether to trust humans or machines into focus.

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