“This is Dick trying out his new tablet.” Dick keyed in the words and touched TTS. Key in your words, the salesman had explained, touch TTS, and the tablet will speak back what you’ve written.
“This is Dick trying out his new tablet,” a female voice repeated.
Dick’s eyes lit up. He keyed in another sentence and hit TTS again.
“My name is Sheryl and I love you,” the woman said.
“Why did you leave me?” Dick mumbled, scratching his head. He crouched over the tablet again, fingers tapping.
“You were too good for me.”
“Of course,” said Dick. He keyed in some more words.
“You are superior to me and I am inferior to you,” she said.
Dick nodded. “Why did you turn so nasty to me?” His fingers flew over the keys.
“Because you always hurt the one you love.”
“I’ll forgive you,” said Dick, “if you come back to me.”
Dick’s cell phone rang. The real Sheryl’s number flashed up.
“My therapist said I should ring and tell you how I feel about you.”
Dick grinned. “Really?”
“You’re a pathetic excuse for a man, a boy needing a woman to look after him. You take no responsibility for anything and everything is somebody else’s fault. Well, I’m not your mother. I hate you and I always will.” Sheryl’s voice dropped an octave. “You weren’t a man, not even when you were on top of me.” She hung up.
Dick turned to his tablet. “Do you really hate me?” His fingers raced over the keyboard again.
“I was only being a bitch to hurt you.”
Dick lay awake that night with a throbbing head until he fell into a strange dream of being a baby again, sucking contentedly on his mother until she changed breasts and a bitter taste filled his mouth.
He woke with a start, panting. The answer came to him. There were two Sheryls! The loving Sheryl Goodall on the tablet and the hating Sheryl on the cell phone. Sheryl Goodall and Sheryl Badall. Dick lay awake for some time, then fell into an exhausted sleep.
In the morning he talked to Sheryl Goodall on the tablet for an hour. Smiling, he put on his factory overalls and was about to leave when he thought of the office girls’ sniggers when he’d stumbled over the wastepaper basket, and that wench supervisor who pounced on him every chance she got. He began to tremble and sweat, fell onto his bed and lay there, unmoving, clutching the tablet to his chest.
Around midday, changing into jeans and jumper, a black beanie pulled low across his face, he left the apartment, muttering. The streets were busy with shoppers and women in dark business suits emerging from coffee shops to march back to their offices. Dick walked unsteadily, gazing straight ahead, keeping to the edge of the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding lampposts and car doors that opened to discharge passengers.
“You crazy fool!” screeched a man after Dick drifted into him. “Look where you’re going!”
The man had a beard that made his face resemble a toilet brush. He looked nothing like Sheryl Badall, but there was something in his manner that reminded Dick of her. Two young women were chatting in a doorway. One turned, stared at Dick and mouthed the words “Sheryl Badall.”
A radio station was doing a shop promo, blasting out music through loudspeakers. As Dick stepped in the gutter to avoid a young woman with leaflets, the DJ sneered and changed the music. It had been cleverly altered and, by people’s reactions, Dick could tell subliminal messages were being broadcast about his humiliation at the hands of Sheryl Badall.
Even people cruising past in a bus were pointing at him. Dick ran back to his apartment.
“Why is everybody conspiring against me?” he sobbed, hugging the tablet to him.
He switched it on and keyed in the question.
There was an evil cackle, and a woman’s voice shrieked: “Because you’re such a pathetic dork!”
Dick raised the tablet high in the air and smashed it to pieces on the floor, then beat his head against the brass rungs at the end of his bed.
Days later, Dick’s mother, accompanied by his work supervisor and a neighbour, watched as police broke down the apartment door.
Dick’s body was lying in his bedroom in a pool of blood, a shard of glass from the tablet screen stuck to the floor beside his wrist.
Header photograph: By No machine-readable author provided. Dandaman32 assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons