Narrative Control

Edited by Kate Dollarhyde

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

October 2020

2139 words — Reading time: around 10 minutes

“Begin narration. You are sitting on the couch, hating yourself for your contented indolence, wondering if any of your friends have noticed how much weight you’ve put on since your partner finally wised up and left.”

“Who the hell are you?” I say. “And how’d you get into my apartment?” I resist the urge to prod my stomach; it’s a close thing.

“I am Anxiety Bot, and I have always been present. I have simply chosen this moment to manifest. Resume narration. You look around, your bloodshot eyes scanning every inch of your filthy apartment. Your search is pointless; Anxiety Bot’s cloaking mechanism renders it invisible in all spectrums of light.”

“I haven’t ordered a bot in months.” I flick a finger up, and my Telewall flips to a channel where a bunch of people in helmets are taking turns at punching one another in the face. It’s unclear what they’re trying to accomplish. I lean forward to get a better look. “You’ve probably got the wrong address. Drone door should still be open, if that’s the way you came.”

“Anxiety Bots are not for purchase. Resume narration. You check your Amazon account, though Anxiety Bot has already confirmed that it was not purchased. Have you ever considered how your inattention might be affecting those you care about?”

I set my phone down; I was checking my Amazon account. “What’s your purpose, exactly?” Because while I’m familiar with the Whisper Bot product line — my father has sent me two Confidence Bots this year alone, and it’s only April — I’ve never heard of an Anxiety Bot. In fact, this is starting to feel like some asshole’s version of a joke, and I am not laughing.

“Anxiety Bot has no purpose. Anxiety Bot simply is.”

“All right, that’s it.” I scoot to the edge of the couch. “Input command string: power down all devices, clear caches, enter BIOS, execute.” The Telewall fades to black; the refrigerator ceases its humming; the couch stops massaging my feet.

“Anxiety Bot cannot be powered down. Perhaps you wish to increase Anxiety Bot’s volume?”

“Are you having a go at me?”

“Volume increased. Anxiety Bot values your input.”

“Fucking hell.” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Alright, let’s figure this shit out. Telewall, boot and input search query: Anxiety Bot.”

The Telewall bursts back into place. “Processing,” it says. “Displaying top results re: Anxiety Bot.”

The results are… interesting. The short of it is that while nobody really knows where the Anxiety Bots are coming from, everyone agrees that they’re almost impossible to get rid of. There’s some speculation online that they’re the result of a Trojan that’s infecting Whisper Bots, which are then used as proxies to harass their owners. Others seem to think that mistreated bots are becoming self-aware and are recalibrating themselves with vengeance in mind.

That second theory’s a load of a bullshit, obviously, but it does have a certain draw to it, because being haunted by some petty shit I said or did three years ago would be pretty fucking on brand.

“Ugh. So, what? This is my life now? You’re just going to narrate everything I do from this point on?”

“That is correct. Resume narration.”

“You are crossing a parking lot, your arms swinging awkwardly by your sides.”

“No, they’re not,” I say, though I am crossing a parking lot. “My arms are just… swinging. Like they’re supposed to.”

“You pass an SUV and peer into the rear window, checking your reflection for confirmation. The awkwardness of your movement is confirmed. In fact, it’s worse than you feared.”

“I look totally normal,” I say, which is true, probably. But it’s hard to tell what normal looks like once you’ve started thinking about motions that should be thoughtless; you can’t help but feel like you’re faking it, and there’s probably some truth to that. “Everyone’s walking the exact same way I am.”

“The locomotion of your arms is all-consuming. You do not have the resources to contemplate anything else. Previous statement retracted; also, your hands are weird. You’re not sure what to do with them, so you jam them into your pockets. You take them out because you don’t want your hands to sweat. Your hands are an ongoing concern, but mostly it’s your arms that you can’t stop thinking about.”

“I mean, yeah. I can’t stop thinking about my arms because you won’t stop talking about them. Prior to that, I’d been thinking about what I needed from the grocery store. Which is really what I should be thinking about right now.”

“Should you swing your arms in parallel with your steps, or should you alternate? You don’t know. How could you possibly not know? Why do you think it is that you struggle so much with things that nobody else even seems to notice? You glance around, your gaze furtive and unsure—”

“I’m just going to make a list on my phone.” Anxiety Bot is becoming increasingly distracting, and I don’t want this trip to take any longer than it needs to. But even something as simple as making a list is difficult in the face of the bot’s never-ending narration.

“You glance around, your gaze furtive and unsure, trying to find another human to emulate. But they’re all so sure of themselves — so comfortable in their own skin — that now you feel even more out of place. You feel, not for the first time, that your life is a reality show, and though the audience despises you with every fiber of their being, nobody ever looks away.”

I shiver. “Well, at least you’re getting creative.”

“You are using a basket to carry your groceries, as you generally do, because navigating a cart through a crowd is more than you can handle. You wonder what that says about you. Nothing good, obviously.”

“I’m just picking up a few things.” My voice is small, quiet. “I don’t need a cart.”

“You’re standing in the cereal aisle, unable to make a decision. You set your basket down because you’ve overloaded it to the point of heaviness, and it immediately blocks the path of another shopper that you absolutely should have noticed.”

“Sorry,” I say.

“The stranger gives you a withering look and moves on. You continue searching the shelves, unaware of the two shoppers standing just behind you, wishing you’d hurry up and make a decision.”

“Sorry,” I say again and force a smile. It feels weird. It feels like I’m doing it wrong.

“You grab a box at random and stick it on top of your basket, knowing it’s probably going to slip right out. You make to leave, but the aisle is surprisingly full — other shoppers are swarming in from both directions, choking the space between the shelves, making you increasingly claustrophobic.”

“Cut it out,” I say under my breath. “None of that is actually happening.” The aisle isn’t that full, really. I mean, sure, it’s busy — busy enough where I’d have avoided it if I’d known it would be like this — but it’s fine.

I do kinda wish I’d kept one of those Confidence Bots around. Their affirmations always felt a little saccharine, a little too much like pandering to the person I wish I was — you are well, you are loved, you are appreciated — but it’d be good to have another voice in my head right about now. But I’m okay, really. I’m fine. I’m totally fine.

“You try to step around someone, but they mirror your movement, and it’s awkward. Why are you like this? What’s wrong with you? You apologize for the third time in less than five minutes.”

I press myself against the nearest aisle, make myself as small as possible. “Sorry.”

“You find a small pocket in the milling crowd, so you just stand there, pretending you still need cereal. You’re trapped; you’re stuck to the floor. Your heart is racing and your palms are cold and clammy and everyone can see that you’ve sweated through your shirt. You can’t breathe and a dozen voices are running together. They’re so loud and they’re echoing and the noise is crashing over you like a wave and you still can’t breathe and—”

“Stop it!”

“You are the only one who can hear Anxiety Bot, so every shopper in the aisle startles at the sound of your voice and turns to look at you at the exact same moment. You are frozen, pinned in place by the collective weight of so many stares.

“They’re looking at you like you’re a car that’s lying upside down on the side of the road.

“Someone whispers to someone else; a few shoppers begin to laugh. You duck your head and flee the aisle, your basket forgotten.”

“You are sitting—”

“Please stop.”

“You are sitting—”

“This is really starting to fuck with my head. Please, if someone’s out there, if anyone’s watching — I’m begging you. Please, stop.”

“You are sitting in a booth at your favorite restaurant, halfway through your third beer even though the rest of your group has yet to arrive. You’re drinking Modelo to dull your nerves — you don’t even taste the beer, not really, and you’re perpetually surprised when you turn the bottle up and find the lime rattling about inside — but your tolerance has been skyrocketing these last few weeks, and your buzz is nonexistent.

“You used to look forward to these after-work get-togethers. They used to be the highlight of your week. They used to be the only thing that got you through the days.”

“They still are.”

“But lately, you’ve been wondering if the others even want you around. You’ve always assumed you were invited, figured that it was just an unspoken thing — and everyone has always seemed happy to see you — but when was the last time anyone actually asked you to join them? You, specifically?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has that ever happened? Honestly, has it?”

I don’t say anything, because the bot isn’t wrong. Because the bot’s never wrong.

“The group arrives, all four of them at the same time, which can’t be a coincidence. You wonder where they’ve been. You wonder if they were out having fun without you.

“The others come over and say hello, and you put on your happiest face, though it doesn’t fit as well as it used to. The others depart for the bar — the service is faster there, supposedly, and they say they’re coming back, but maybe that’s just an excuse to get some time away from you.

“Should you join them, even though you already have a drink? You could order another at the bar, but that might screw up your waitress’ tab. Maybe you should just wait for the others to return. You almost get up but decide that too much time has passed, so you stay where you are, lonely and out of place in that massive, cherry-red booth.

“The others get their drinks, but they linger at the front of the restaurant. One of them meets your eyes, turns away. A second does the same. It’s like they’re talking about you, but they’re trying to keep it from being obvious. Are they wondering why you haven’t joined them, or are they hoping you won’t?

“You slip out of the booth and leave the restaurant. Nobody tries to stop you.”

“Your alarm goes off, so you grab your phone and just lay in bed for a while, tell yourself that this is all part of waking up; that it’s perfectly normal to wake in perpetual dread of the moment in which you can no longer delay throwing the covers off.

“You skip your usual shower because you’ve laid in bed for much too long and now there isn’t time. You wonder if you smell. Actually, there’s no need to wonder: of course you smell.

“The stench is terrible — gamey and sour — and everyone’s going to know that you’re the one that stinks the moment you walk into the office. You already know that you’re going to spend all day fretting that you’re the subject of every conversation you can’t quite make out, but what else is new?

“You take a deep breath as you tug your khakis on. You’ve been doing that a lot lately: breathing. Why do you think that is? You pull a shirt on, button it. Flip your collar up. Grab a tie off the nightstand and start in on a double Windsor. You pause when the knot is only halfway finished, for no single reason.

“You sink onto the foot of the bed, your face in your hands. You stay like that for a very long time. Your phone beeps; it’s a message from your father. You hesitate. You turn your phone off and crawl back under the covers.”

© 2020 Kyle Kirrin

About the author

Kyle Kirrin

Kyle Kirrin is a Baltimore-based writer and active SFWA member whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He’s most often found shouting into the void as @KyleKirrin on Twitter.