by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
First published 2018, in Future Visions (Goodreads link)
I wish my mother would die.
A son is not supposed to say such things, but there comes a time.
Look at her, now. All alone in this dark room. It stinks of dying––you know that rotting, sickly-sweet smell that old people give off, that nasal vomit that every part of your secret mind tells you to run, run like a deer from the hounds, and never look back? It is dimly lit, this dark room of hers; there’s some light leaking through the curtains. A few white rays paint the HospaBed. And in the center, glaring like a baleful spider, is my mother.
“Turn up my painkillers,” she croaks. “Goddamn you, you’ve left it low again, you bastard.”
The HospaBed is all-metal outside, with built-in painkiller and medicine delivery. The painkiller dials are turned up to maximum. I pretend to adjust it.
“Look at you,” it sneers from the bed. “When are you getting married, eh? Living here, nancy-boy, until I die and give you the house?”
Getting married. Yeah, mum. I could, maybe, if I wasn’t spending half my salary on your medical payments and the other half on groceries. Maybe if you crawled out of that HospaBed right now and threw yourself out of the window we could think about it. I might even be able to afford a ring.
“Fuck off,” I growl at her. “Shut up and sleep.”
The woman who packed my lunches and fetched me a hard wallop across the ear is just a photograph. In its place is a rattling corpse that refuses to go away. I feed it, change its blankets, wipe away its dribble and its shit, and it curses me for leaving the painkiller setting too low.
Maybe you either die a parent or you live long enough to see yourself become a child again.
There is, however, one thing that might help.
The Writers of the Future. I’ve been refreshing this website in my head ever since I heard they’re opening again. One of the last big writing contests on the Internet. $35,000 for the winner, $15,000 for second place.
I’m a good writer. It’s the one thing I’ve known since I was little. I know how words go together.
Of course, you can’t be a true-blue author anymore – we can’t complete with HemmingwayBot or McKillip.Ai or the other ghosts resurrected from the books of the best writers who ever lived. Beating a legend on the BookMarket is damn near impossible now, even for a bot. Who the hell can match Clarke, for instance, paired with the contents of every new research paper, every news stream, every open data store? Forget writing scifi. The ten Shakespeare bots, cranking out their faithfully patterned dramas; those alone would wipe the floor with you before your book ever hit the new releases lists. There’s a lot to be said for churning out 50,000 words a day.
But there is a growing market for human writers now. People are tired of perfection, I think: they want flaws, they want something to critique, they want novelty. And I know I’m good enough. I’ve written––I don’t know how young I was, but I remember stories scrawled on the backs of the paper bags they give you at the street-food stall. I remember that thrill when I got to the creative writing class, where the tests seemed more like pedestals than challenges, a chance for me to show off what I could do with my pen. I went from that to college, English and Chinese literature, BA, the works. Even my mother, who told me being a writer was stupid, that being an engineer or a data scientist was the only to make money in this world––even she was proud, at least momentarily, that I’d actually graduated.
And then someone got a bot to write a perfect Heinlein novel, and the world was never the same again. I knew that day how painters felt when they realized photography had taken over.
I open the curtains on my way out, and the white beams of sunlight turn into the Yard. Contrary to what my mother thinks, I don’t live in her house: she lives in mine. It’s a two-bedroom . They built it out of an old shipping yard, turning the container units into tiny one-man apartments. Some of them are stacked in piles with a bit of metal and concrete riveted on to keep them from falling off. Very few of us can afford to drive, so the only moving vehicles are Beatnik, the neighborhood cop. His split bodies trundle leisurely down broken concrete paths, swerving every so often around the kids playing in potholes.