I had no idea how long we’d been driving. It didn’t help that I couldn’t trust my memory. What if I’d forgotten a whole night in a hotel? It sounded unlikely, but given the nature of recent events, that was small comfort. Unable to endure the oppressive silence I asked Henry if we could listen to music. Without speaking or taking his eyes off the road, Henry activated his radio.
An indefinite amount of time later, I noticed we had arrived in a suburb. “La la la Loooove” came on the radio. Like any self-respecting adult, Henry was evidently not interested in listening to Jimmy Xeon any more than the absolute minimum his pre-teen daughter required of him. Henry’s hand shot out to change the channel, but then stopped and pulled away. “Do you know…” he started, “Did you hear what happened to Jimmy Xeon?”
I didn’t know what happened to Jimmy Xeon. “Where are you taking me?” I asked, but Henry didn’t respond. He did look at me, though, trying to keep one eye on the road, he reached out and touched my cheek. Then he nodded as if reassured and resumed ignoring me.
Henry’s sedan rolled to a stop in his driveway. I maintained my shallow breathing as he sat motionless in his seat. The house looked perfectly normal, at least. Two floors, robin’s egg blue siding, and a vegetable garden out front, bright red tomatoes hung off a vine and were clearly ready to be picked. My neighborhood covenant would never abide a vegetable garden in a front lawn, I thought distractedly as Henry played with the gear shift.The song ended, and Henry turned off the radio. He backed out of the driveway.
It was beginning to get dark now, and Henry continued to drive us away from what I had presumed was his house. We came to a park entrance and drove in, the trees rising high above us on either side, shading out the last of the sunlight. Now the only light came from Henry’s headlights. The road seemed to extend endlessly, vanishing into darkness.
Finally, we drove off and parked on the side of the road. Henry shut off the lights and we were in complete darkness. I had to remind myself that I was well past the time of life where a man would want to make unwelcome sexual advances, but then again I’d read enough trashy crime fiction to know a rapist could rape just about anyone just for the feeling of power. I breathed slowly, trying to force the thoughts out of my mind.
In the darkness I couldn’t even tell if my eyes were closed, let alone if I was conscious or dreaming. Finally, Henry spoke in a low voice, as if the woods themselves might be eavesdropping. “I know your name, Diane.”
I restrained the urge to tell him that I would be very disappointed if the hospital had let him abduct his supposed mother without knowing her name. I decided to adopt a conciliatory tone, “I know, Henry,” I whispered, “It’s all right. You can use it.”
There was a silence. “Why did you do it?” Henry asked.
“What did I do, Henry?” I felt like I was talking to a pouting child, but this was leagues better than being raped or murdered, so I was happy to answer whatever questions Henry had to ask, especially if it helped me understand what was going on. Henry didn’t say anything for a long while.
“Henry,” I said again, and Henry nearly shouted.
“We could have -” then he caught hold of himself and quieted again, although he gained a strained tone. “We could have stopped them, back when they couldn’t fight back.”
“Henry,” I scolded. I couldn’t help myself. “I am not going to support an organization that uses violence to achieve its ends!”
Henry went silent again, and again I feared the worst. Then his voice came out of the darkness again “They took my family from me, Diane.”
I did not know what to make of this. Instead of responding I just waited to see if he would say more.
“I told you I was fighting to keep my job.”
“My whole team worked day and night for a week, only to find that our shiny monitor-faced competitors had done all our work in a day. They took Linda’s job, too. With both of us out of work, we couldn’t pay the bills, or pay for food. It didn’t take long for Linda to suggest a move to live with her parents. I told her I couldn’t bring myself to face them and she told me she didn’t expect me to.”
“What? She left you?” The relationship must have been having issues before.
“She left me, Diane.” Henry’s tenor changed again from morose to accusatory “The Cleaners took everything from me.”
Now I took a moment to respond. This was somehow my fault? Because I didn’t want people to kill each other? “I’m sorry,” I told Henry, “that sounds awful. I don’t know what to say.”
Henry blew his nose and sighed. “I thought I would feel better if I confronted you.”
With a mumbled curse, Henry, revved the car back to life and drove me back out to the house with the tomatoes. He wheeled me up the porch steps and into the entry door. A woman in a blue and white mohawk was sitting on the couch, lit by the television. She glanced at me and said “oh, hey, it’s Angry Grandma. Cindy.” Henry wheeled me over next to the couch and she extended her hand. Then he mumbled something about getting my bed ready and wandered off. I was too tired to keep wondering where I was. I’d pick that up again tomorrow.
“Sorry,” I said with a grimace. “My hands don’t work like they used to.”
“Ah,” beamed Cindy, “then I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’ll be your 100% grade-A human physical therapist.” Here, so you can be sure. She grabbed my hand and pressed it against her cheek. “See, no monitor.” I was lost. Surely I could tell just by looking if she had a monitor instead of a head.
Cindy looked back at the TV. A young man with brown wavy hair cavorted on stage, making leaps and backflips and singing about love and pretty girls. “Is that Jimmy Xeon?” I asked.
Cindy sighed, “no, not really, but it’s a darn good effect.”
“What happened to Jimmy Xeon?” I asked.
“Well, Henry was saying something happened to him.”
“Oh, oh yeah! That’s a story! He was on tour once when this guy who looked just like him started saying he was the real Jimmy Xeon and the guy on stage was a robot in a hologram. Fans were split. I wanted to believe the real Xeon was still on stage, and if this was just a hologram it didn’t explain why we could still shake his hand and wrap our arms around him for a picture.”
“Then one really brave fan tried to kiss him. Right on the lips. No, it wasn’t me, unfortunately. It was right on camera, she bumped her nose into an invisible wall in front of his face. Before security was on her, she was tugging on a box around his head that nobody could see.”
Evidently seeing the look on my face, Cindy said, “I know, right? Dynamic holograms, they say. It’s a Dancer that can look like whatever star they want him to. It must be expensive or something or I’d think all the Helpers would be looking like regular people. Anyway, now even Jimmy Xeon is out of a job.”
After politely waiting a moment for me to respond, Cindy turned back to the screen, where the apparently robotic Jimmy Xeon did splits and appeared to fly across the stage and then across the audience on a stage wire. Suddenly I realized I knew this song. He was covering an oldie from before I was born. “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
You were the first one
You were the last one
It didn’t fit with the rest of his repertoire, at least what little I knew of it. The irony wasn’t lost on me, though. Did somebody deliberately pick this song as a cruel joke?
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
“we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far” I mumbled along with Jimmy’s robot replacement. Cindy didn’t seem to hear me.
oh a oh oh oh…