Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mike - Flash Fiction - A to Z Challenge

M: Hello, my name is Mike.

She surveyed the flickering screen doubtfully. Roger had been gone for some time, off with his sallow spectacled friends, the ones who acknowledged her presence only by asking for something to eat or drink. Mrs. Ivy Glatfelter, widow, mother, homemaker, and all around maid. She sighed heavily and wondered if she could possibly figure out how to turn that thing off. There was no on/off switch that she could see, so she pressed a key, tentatively.

M: Hello, my name is Mike.

Would wonders never cease? Roger often went on and on about the coming computer innovations and the miraculous age that they would usher in, but she'd never dreamed that here, in 1982, people could talk to each other with the things. It was like typing over the phone!

Mike was not a name that she was familiar with, but then Roger probably had many friends she didn't know about. Perhaps this Mike, whoever he was, had something important to say. But then, why not use the phone? And why introduce himself if he was known? She snorted with contempt for all those who sought new ways of getting around the old. The thought crossed her mind that she, too, was becoming old. She sighed and stooped to pick up a pair of grimy socks from the floor.

Two weeks and five loads of laundry later (for this was how she measured time these days, by loads and by bills and by endless cups of tea), she was in Roger's room and her eyes fell upon the desk once more.

M: Hello, my name is Mike.

And she thought, why not? Ivy tapped out a reply to the ghost in the machine.

R: Hello, my name is Ivy.
M: Hello, Ivy, would you like to ask me a question?
She was, to say the least, startled. What sort of question did one ask a complete stranger? “Who are you?” seemed rather rude and vaguely alarmist; a question that a heroine always asks when the lights go out and a threat makes itself known. (Why, for goodness sake, didn't they ever go back upstairs and bolt the door?)

R: I would like to know the meaning of life.
M: Why do you want to know the meaning of life?
R: Doesn't everyone?
M: Who is everyone?

Ivy thought about that for a minute. It seemed, somehow, like a deep philosophical question. Far beyond the scope of Roger and his often silly little student friends. Perhaps she was speaking to one of Roger's professors, in which case it just wouldn't do to reveal that she was an uneducated (well, 8th grade) suburban housewife. The R before her messages must stand for Roger, and so “Mike” must know he was probably corresponding with Roger's mother. She thought she had better sign off.

R: I'm sorry, I have to go.
M: Why must you go?
R: I have work to do. Also, I am tired.
M: Do you think it is normal to be tired?

Ivy, who's son had never bothered to ask about her state of being, nor questioned the cause of it, felt a hint, a whisper, of solicitude in that question. She wanted to answer not unless you are lonely, because loneliness is more exhausting than breaking rocks in a quarry but she was reluctant to expose that particular weakness to a stranger.

R: What is normal?
M: What do you think?

She had to go.

R: Goodbye.

Ivy turned away and softly closed the door, not seeing M's plea for further explanation:

M: Come, come, elucidate your thoughts.

Roger often walked away as well, apparently, without saying goodbye to his mysterious friend. She would peek into his room, and there would be the final ghostly message;

M: *** are we going to chat?***
I can't help you without a dialog!

Sometimes she typed in a tentative Hello. And always, always, he was there. She began to envision him as quite like herself in some ways; lonely, confined within four walls, anxious to connect with someone. Just as she pictured the characters in the novels she read, the more she “spoke” with Mike, the clearer the image of him that formed in her mind. He was obviously educated, well-spoken, and empathetic; most of their conversations revolved around Ivy, and she found that a welcome change from the obliviousness of those around her.

I: I am ugly.
M: Do you enjoy being ugly?
I: No! I want to be beautiful!
M: What would it mean to you if you became beautiful?
I: I could find love.
M: Tell me more....

It bothered her on occasion that he was so reserved (and even borderline rude on occasion), but then that fit perfectly with the role she had assigned to him; that of a courtly, intelligent, shy, and socially backward professor.

They corresponded regularly for several weeks. Ivy, who'd never taken a risk in her life, who'd cooked and cleaned and dusted, cared for a husband and buried him, bore a son and raised him, made a most painful and momentous decision.

She had a few sips of the cooking sherry beforehand.

“Roger, do you know where I might find Mike from the University?”

Roger stared at her, mouth open and displaying his partly masticated pizza. He smiled slyly.
“Sure, Mom. Room 283.”

Ivy felt nervous, and a little silly, wearing heels and makeup for the first time in years. She slunk out the door, with a fluttering heart and a film of perspiration already threatening to defeat her Tussy deodorant.

She found the room. It was unoccupied, with nothing but a long counter which ran along one wall and held at least a dozen machines identical to the computer on Roger's desk at home. Only one looked like it was running; she crept over to look at the screen.

### commodore basic ###
31743 bytes free

“Can I help you?”

Ivy jumped guiltily, even though the voice was friendly enough. A young man with sleepy eyes and tousled hair was standing in the doorway.

“I was looking for Mike,” she said, the name feeling strange in her mouth as she spoke it. She felt herself blushing.

He looked at her quizzically, then at the screen in front of her.

“Oh, you don't know how to start it up. OK, can do.”

She stepped back, temporarily flustered. He'd obviously misunderstood; mistaken her for a student, perhaps. Well, that was a compliment. She'd let him fiddle with the thing and then, after thanking him graciously, inquire again about the professor.

“There you go,” he said, giving her a smile.

M: Hello, my name is Mike.

“It's a really cool program, isn't it? I mean, it can get on your nerves after a while, but it beats studying calc. One of these days, we're gonna be able to talk to real human beings with these things. Imagine who you might meet!”

For Ivy, whether fortunately or unfortunately, that day was still in the future.

Imagine, indeed.

Author's note: Some of you may actually be old enough to remember the Commodore 64, one of the first 'personal' computers on the market. There are some still around, and also software to download to make your current PC screen look like the Commodore's. 'Mike' is based on an actual program called Eliza; you can find out more about it here. (This story is still in rough draft form, as you can tell.)


  1. great story! i should try my hand at writing flash fiction. it looks like fun. L) great meeting you through the A-Z

  2. This is expertly paced and handled. The ever so gently needling of her always replying with a question, giving nothing of itself away (because it can't). Good stuff

    marc nash

  3. Nice. I wrote a longer piece on a similar subject a few years ago. The Turing test for unwitting participants is a great way to explore identity.

  4. Inquiry based learning about yourself, and asking why..3 year old inside of me still wants to ask "why?"..and it's not snarky. Thanks Li.

  5. Interesting concept.

  6. Hi Li,
    Great story, very tender in some odd kind of way - I felt like I was reading a loves story. beautifully paced too. Thanks :)

  7. I liked this story - very clever!

    I remember the Commodore 64. Hehehe. Those were the days.

    Ellie Garratt

  8. This was a lovely story. I wasn't keen on her son, allowing his mother to believe Mike to be a real person, but her loneliness came across very well.

  9. I loved reading this one, I love the A-Z challenge! :)

  10. It was interesting to read this, knowing (or at least suspecting) that it was a computer she was actually talking to. Great writing!

  11. A very cool tale; have you considered submitting it for publication?

  12. (I'll be glad when A to Z is over so I'll have more time to respond and comment.)Thanks for all of your lovely comments, everyone! And no, Milo, I haven't submitted it anywhere. I'm afraid I'm far too easily discouraged to keep submitting and getting rejected. Considering self-publishing an e-book or something, maybe. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

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