Although the tape around his chest restricted a full breath of air, Charlie inhaled deeper than he had for years. It felt good; he felt good…finally.
But last night hadn’t been good. Although it wasn’t one of his worst nights, it was miserable for him and frustrating for his wife, Judy. His struggle was a two edge sword. Not only did he suffer from his own affliction but he exposed her to the aura of despair created by his agony. That guilt doubled the suffering.
Year after year, she stood by his side. She comforted during his low points. She encouraged during his despair. And, amazingly, she stayed with him. Much to his surprise, and sometimes to his disappointment, she tolerated his constant complaining. Maybe if she yelled at him for being such an idiot he wouldn’t have felt guilty. Maybe if she stormed out the door cussing and cursing the day she agreed to spend her life with an extreme pessimist he would actually feel better. But she never did. He continually complained about work and politics and she continually to console.
“Your time will come. It will. You have worked hard for Marty and he likes you…I know it. Just don’t give up…don’t walk away from thirteen years.”
He smiled. Last night when she’d spoke those words, he’d let them echo through the hollow tunnels of his head. Years ago, before discouragement first poisoned his soul, her words lifted his spirits. But each use slowly robbed the words of their magic. Each pick-me-up fell slightly shorter than the previous. In time, the words did nothing more than keep him from opening his own mouth and letting his darkness escape and poison her soul too.
“You can’t give up on your dream. What would be left? What would you have if you let go now?”
For years he felt he was actually doing her a favor by listening to the words of encouragement. So many times he wanted to tell her to stop…it was a burden to hear encouragement while in such deep despair. It was a constant reminder of his failure. But even though it sometimes angered him that she still believed his time would come, he didn’t attack. No, he always listened…or at least pretended. But now, here he was. His time had come. Just as she had always believed it would. Somehow she had managed to get him here.
He secured the belt around his long coat and stepped onto the transport, smiling for the first time (ever) at the operator.
“Good morning, sir,” the stranger said and winked his mechanical eye.
“Yes is it,” he said and grinned back.
Ironic, he thought, to smile at a Manbot. Every morning for thirteen years he’d scowled bitterly at the Manbots…every one of them. The meal preparer on his floor, the lift operator, the shuttle director, the corner patrol…every damn Manbot on every damn corner of every damn city. But today was special…and so he smiled.
The signal, hours ago, had shocked him. It had come shortly after the morning alert. After he’d opened his eyes and felt, like any other morning, the darkness surround him. After he had searched for a reason to avoid another day of processing. After he had rolled his lethargic body from the sleep pod and grumbled his way to the preparation room. It had looked like any other day…until he saw the signal.
In that moment, his day changed. The darkness vanished and he felt…life. He had forgotten how wonderful it felt to be alive. Judy was initially shocked at his pleasant nature over their morning rations but then understood. Without an explanation, she realized the signal had come.
As tears of joy streamed down her face, she silently mouthed an, ‘I knew you would make it honey!”
With a hug and kiss, he said goodbye to her for the last time.
“Thanks,” he whispered. “Thanks for putting up with me for all these years. I owe everything to you.”
Her eyes sparkled in the hazy morning light and she shook her head. “You made this happen…now go and receive your reward.”
The transport began to vibrate and hum as it began its quick journey across the wasteland. On any other day, he’d curl up on the floor and sleep. But not today. He looked around. The transport was full of Manbots. There were, as best he could tell, three other humans…and he was thankful for this. He didn’t hate his fellow men. Three was not too many.
He regretted not being able to thank Marty in person. But then, he had earned his opportunity. He had endured day after day of meaningless, mindless, brain-sapping processing all with the assumption that one day he would be signaled. He just hadn’t expected it to be thirteen years. So many times he wanted to quit. So many others had given up on him, including his own parents who, ashamed of his foolish dreams, stopped calling after four years. He inhaled proudly, feeling again the pressure from the tape wrapped around his chest. Now they would be proud. Everyone who had laughed, scorned, and called him a fool would say…. ‘Wow, Charlie did it. He was right all along.’
Judy was his only faithful friend. She had stuck it out…just has she promised she would fifteen years ago when they vowed their lives to each other. And it hadn’t been easy for her; she saw him at his lowest. She held on day after day through his unceasing complaining about his mundane life. She deserved the rewards and honors that would soon befall her because of his success.
The transport slowed and Charlie breathed faster…excited and anxious. He walked to the transport exit panel and stuck his hand deep into his coat pocket. He wrapped his hand around the small, soft round ball and waited.
The doors opened and Charlie stepped out. He looked up one last time at the processing plant that rose high into the sky before him. This time he didn’t feel bitter anger at the sight. He felt hope.
“This is for you, Judy,” he said. And he squeezed the ball.