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“I went to Ohio, to visit my hometown.
There were no people, there was no downtown.
Oh Oh Oh where’d you go, O-hi-o?”
The Pretenders – My City Was Gone
I can never remember a time in my life when I didn’t want things to be tidy. I don’t like hugging or sharing my food – I just want everything to be straight ahead and clean. So it peeved me a little when a webzine editor set up a meeting of authors and editors in Dayton Ohio, and then bowed out at the last minute.
I had already bought my tickets and made reservations weeks in advance, even going so far as to Google and print out the city bus routes I would be taking once I got there. The hard feelings were erased however, when the rest of us decided to meet up in Dayton anyway.
The Greyhound bus-ride was uneventful although long. There was some man sitting in the seat in front of me telling a captured audience about how much he loved pork, but the window was clean and the view was of an infinite number of rows of stumps of harvested corn.
Events didn’t truly veer off course until I was on the 17 bus heading downtown and a mechanical female voice came over the intercom on the bus. “Remember, people need your blood. Your blood will be happily accepted at locations easily accessed at the end of most bus routes.” I thought it was unseemly for advertisers to assume that all people who rode a city bus needed money badly enough to sell their blood. I looked around at the other riders but none of them seemed to have been bothered by the announcement.
The bus system was infinitely more organized than the one I usually rode in Louisville Kentucky. At each major intersection the mechanical voice called out the name of the intersecting streets, while in Louisville, buses couldn’t talk to each other, nor did anyone know where they were at any given time. If a bus was broken down the driver had to walkie-talkie the main terminal to send out another one and waiting passengers along the route had no idea what was going on.
“Remember, people need your blood,” the onboard speaker called out again, three minutes after the first announcement. “Your blood will be happily accepted at locations easily accessed at the end of most bus routes.” I looked at the other bus riders: still no reaction to the degrading message.
I looked around the bus again, closer this time. There was something missing…but what?
Fat people. There were no fat people, there were no skinny people, and no one appeared to be homeless. Each of the two dozen passengers appeared to be height and weight proportional, with their ages between 25 and 50 years old. As the ride progressed no one moved, no one shifted, and no one said anything. I briefly caught the eye of one lady who immediately looked down and pulled the brim of her hat over her eyes.
It was almost noon so I looked out the window for a fast food row, having decided to get off the bus and eat before resuming my journey downtown - but block after block went past and I didn’t see a Burger King or a McDonalds – not even an indoor mall where there might have been a food court.
Arriving at the bus terminal, I was amazed by the monitors set up to let riders know how far out their connecting buses were and whether or not they would be arriving on time. The passengers all waited quietly for their buses to arrive, reading ebooks on tablets or just standing in line. I saw a sign for a Golden Blossom Chinese Food diner next to the bus station – but a small banner had been put over the menu saying the place was closed for good.
The Grand Dayton Hotel was exactly where the map I had googled said it would be but I was disappointed when I saw that the words ‘Grand Dayton’ on the sign out front had been covered with white paint, leaving only the word Hotel. There was a small arrow pointing around back where the main entrance normally was, so I entered the hotel through the parking garage. The word ‘Hilton’ had been scratched out on several metal name plates. There were sheets of plastic hanging in the lobby.
The group wasn’t scheduled to meet up for a few hours, so I checked in and went to my room. As I used my keycard to open the door I noticed a 4-foot-wide brown stain on the carpet in the hall outside my room. It looked as if blood had been hastily sopped up. I chuckled to myself noting that I was forever the sci-fi author and was probably letting my imagination run wild. The room was small for the price I was paying, but at least I had made it here and I would soon be meeting up with my cyber-friends soon.
Walking through the lobby again I got the attention of the desk clerk and asked her to hand a message to an Italian author also staying at the Hotel. She smiled weakly, taking the folded note before laying it aside as if she had no intention of passing it on.
I walked around downtown to find someplace nice where our small, friendly group could eat supper. I walked through blocks of buildings that were boarded up, sheets of brown paper covering the majority of the street-level windows. I would have asked for directions but within a period of fifteen minutes I didn’t meet another living soul – not even a cat or stray dog.
After not even finding a fast-food joint, I noticed an 8x11 inch metal sign saying the name of my home bank, a large multinational financial institution, and went inside the building. There was a doorman’s station but no one was there so I went up the escalator. At the top I saw a row of six teller windows but no people. I checked my cell phone for the time: 1:47 in the afternoon. There were wooden banker’s desks and chairs on the right, but no one was there either.
A man in a suit suddenly burst out from behind the row of cages.
“Hello,” I said cordially. “I noticed the Chase Bank sign downstairs and was hoping you could help me. I was looking for someplace downtown to eat.”
I could tell he was flustered at the question, as if I had interrupted something important, but what could possibly be more important than helping the only customer in the building? “I’ve lived upstairs in this building for eight years and I have never had a meal out. I just eat the stipulated portions in my apartment, the recommended food. If I need more I go to the end-of-line blood bank, of course.”
“Stipulated portions?...” I asked, trying to clarify what could he possibly mean. “Why would I go to the blood bank for food?”
I could almost hear his mind begin to back pedal. “I’m sorry. You’re not from here are you?”
“No, I’m from Louisville Kentucky.”
“Ah! Well I believe there is a burger place maybe three blocks south of here on Morris Street,” he told me quickly.
“I’ll check, thanks,” I told him. Then my eyes fell upon six toy robots arranged in a circle on a nearby desk. They were black and white and looked like small dogs. “Those are cute. Are they for sell?”
The teller threw himself between me and the circle of toys. “They don’t like to be touched!” he whispered frantically.
“THEY don’t like to be touch?” I laughed. “They’re only toys.”
He was beside himself with agitation. “I meant: please don’t touch them!”
Seeing that I obviously wasn’t welcome I went down the escalator, but before I went too far, I noticed that the dogs must have been turned on somehow, because they were all facing the escalator now. As I was halfway to the first floor I thought I heard the cashier say, ‘Cute indeed’ in a huff.
Of course the burger place had a huge paper banner over the name sign that read, “Closed for business” – but I was able to get the attention of a doorman who directed me two blocks west to a pizza/pasta venue.
Walking into Uno Chicago Style Pizza was like a breath of fresh air. Although there was only one couple in the place, there were two bartender/waiters behind the U-shaped bar. I was warmly greeted as I pulled up a stool and handed a menu.
I ordered a rum and coke (Captain Morgan please) and was able to finally relax about halfway through the drink. I ordered some lasagna and talked with the shorter of the bartenders as I waited. “I’m surprised there aren’t more customers,” I told Cecil.
“It’s after lunch. It will get busy again come dinnertime,” he answered happily.
“I spent an hour walking around and only saw two people the entire time,” I replied.
He leaned in close, sneering, as if telling me a secret. “Go past the blood bank at 2nd and Day Streets. You’ll see lots of people there.”
“I suppose!” I said laughing out loud. “What is it with Dayton Ohio and the blood bank? I was riding the bus and an announcement kept telling people to go there.”
“Yep. I don’t get it either – but I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks. I hail from Chillicothe, here in Ohio. Have you ever been there? – great little town. The University of Ohio has a branch there so there’s a wide diversity of people…”
Before Cecil could finish his thought a voice called to him from the kitchen. “Cecil, could I talk to you back here for a minute?” asked a man’s voice.
A couple of minutes later the other bartender came out of the kitchen with my food. He placed it before me and then was turning to go when I stopped him. “Cecil and I were talking. It sounded like he did something wrong. I hope everything is okay.”
The man threw a bar towel across his right shoulder and cross his arms. The smile he put on was more of a grimace. “Oh, yeah, Cecil is fine. He just gets distracted, you know? – he likes to talk too much.”
“I thought that was part of being a bartender – chatting with the customers.”
My words had obviously fallen on deaf ears as the man turned on his heel and headed for the kitchen again. “Enjoy your pasta,” he called back over his shoulder.
Our small group of cyber-friends ate and drank for hours inside the Uno Chicago Style Pizza Place. We exchanged small gifts of candy and liquors and homemade drawings – as was our usual practice. We even got the stuffy waiter to take a picture of our small circle of revelers. There were perhaps another half dozen tables filled with couples mostly.
As we were paying our checks, the editor of Alien Eyes saw a toy beside the cash register.
“I’ve only seen a few of these,” said Lawrence. “It’s an Aibo robot.”
“Aibo? I thought these quit being made in 2005,” answered Sterling, bending down to look at it. “There were only a thousand made before the idea was suddenly scratched for some reason. I always thought they were cute…don’t know why they stopped making them.”
“I thought there was a fire at the factory or something,” added Sergio. “Wasn’t they some kind of scandal involving the dogs and then the factory burned down?”
Sterling moved closer to the toy, obviously wanting to pick it up.
“Careful!” I blurted out. “These toys don’t like to be touched!”
“You’re joking with us!” Lawrence said before we all broke into laughter.
Sterling looked at the stuffy waiter. “Would you mind turning it on? Years ago they begged and made a delightful peeing sound.”
“It’s just for display,” said the man flatly. He nodded towards the door.
As we left, I nudged Sterling to follow my lead. We both looked through the front window to see the robot dog’s eyes glowing as the cashier bent over, appearing to talk to the toy.
When my friends and I got back to the hotel we rode up in the elevator together, getting off on different floors. I would rather that our rooms could have been beside each other, but what was done was done. I sat alone in the room for a while, eating leftover pizza and watching TV.
I tried to take a shower but cold water came out of the hot water nozzle.
No one entered any of the other rooms and I didn’t hear any voices at all. Perhaps this was what downtown Dayton Ohio was like on a Tuesday night I thought, trying to console myself.
I turned off the TV and the lights and lay on the bed in the dark for a while. I wished the window in my room had more of a view than the parking garage across the street. I closed the drapes and went to sleep.
I must have dozed off because I was shocked when the lights came suddenly turned on in my room. I looked around the room not knowing what to expect – but I was the only one there thankfully. I noticed the time on the small digital alarm clock on the bedstand was 2:36 in the morning. I waited for a moment, not breathing, my heart pounding, listening, listening. I finally heard a door open and close halfway to the elevator.
I got up and turned off the offending lamp, as it was probably merely malfunctioning, turning itself on once with an electrical surge. Just after 4 A.M. the lamp woke me up by coming on again. But how could that be? It didn’t make sense. I put a pillow over my head and tried to sleep.
I was unnerved by the next morning. My dreams had been fitful and the lack of diversity of people I met was disturbing. I couldn’t find a hotel clerk so I put my card key into an envelope and left it on the main desk in the temporary lobby.
As I was walking towards the bus terminal I began to meet people going the other way. I wondered where they were all headed, checked my cell phone for the time, and decided I had time to follow them. As I walked with them I could see clearly that men had the toy dogs in their backpacks and women carried them in their purses. Of course they all ended up at the same building, a bright, modern, friendly building with the words ‘Donation Bank’ on an 8 ½ inch square card beside the front door.
“Michele!” I heard a voice whisper loudly. “Over here!”
I turned to see Cecil, my bartender from the day before, sitting on a bench across the street from the entrance smoking a cigarette. I gladly went over to talk to him. As he seemed transfixed on the people going into the building, I dove right in and asked him a question. “What’s up the blood bank people, Cecil?”
“I don’t know, I’ve been trying to put it together myself,” he said, offering me a cigarette from a half-smoked pack of Marlboros. “I’m new here, but there is just something weird going on.”
He looked over at me holding out the pack and I motioned for him to put the cigarette away. “I’ve never smoked, but thanks,” I told him. “Are those robot dogs like vampires or something?”
We both laughed a little and Cecil brightened up. “Yeah, like they have little canine teeth that come out and they drink all the people’s blood.”
“Well, they would be Canine teeth for sure – because they’re in tiny robot dogs,” I whispered, joking. We laughed together again.
“It’s like everybody who lives here goes inside twice a week.”
“And do they come out again?”
“Yes, yes,” he said leaning back on the bench. “But you never see them eat anything. They just carry these boxes of pouched food with them, along with the robot dogs.”
“Let’s look at this rationally. It must be something about blood. Let’s say that it’s important to the powers that be for a large group of people to be able to produce high quality blood. So in exchange for their blood, people are given a controlled food supply and places to live.” I looked over at him and he was nodding, agreeing with me.
“But they don’t talk to each other either. It’s as if they’re all sedated.”
“Maybe they are…” I said. “Maybe the pouches contain food and a mild sedative.”
He sat up as a truck pulled up across the street.
I could read the letters clearly on the white refrigerated van. “Interstate Resources,” I read out loud.
“Is it possible that the robot dogs don’t want the blood, but they want to use the blood as a commodity?” Cecil wondered. “Afterall, blood is essential when someone has an accident. Hospitals need it and will pay almost anything to procure it. When rich people need blood they’ll pay big bucks to get it. Maybe they’re farmers – blood farmers. They want a high quality stable production of blood so they feed their herd special food and shelter them and make sure they’re able to get to the harvesting station: blood farmers.”
“Okay, they’re blood farmers – Who is ‘they’. Who is profiting from the commodity and what do they really want?” I asked.
Cecil sighed loudly. “It has to be the dogs. Everyone has them and they carry them with them in their backpacks and purses.”
“I have seen an awful lot of robot dogs in town, and only 1000 of them were made originally…at least that’s what Sterling said last night. I guess that all of them could have ended up in Dayton Ohio – but it’s unlikely.”
“There are 140,000 people in Dayton and everyone downtown seems to have one,” replied the bartender.
“I wonder how many Aibos are in the suburbs?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. Really, for this to work, you need to have people who are already visiting the blood bank so that the sedative can be introduced through the pouch food. They’re using downtown people, bus people, because they are easy prey and won’t be missed. The people in the suburbs probably don’t know what is going on.”
“Okay, okay. Let’s assume that somehow the Aibo’s wiring got crossed up years ago and these dogs achieved sentience. What would sentient robot dogs want?” I asked him.
“Maybe more robot dogs…” he whispered. “It’s not like they’re hurting the humans, maybe their programming won’t let them – but they’d like to broaden their base, so they’re using human fluids as a commodity to get money to build factories to build more dogs.”
We could see the truck driver beginning to load the truck with boxes brought out on a dolly. A person in a lab coat at the door pointed across the street. “It’s us,” whispered Cecil, “they’re pointing at us.” Suddenly everyone in line turned and stared at us at the same time.
Cecil threw his cigarette to the ground and stomped on it to put it out. We both left quickly.
I didn’t try to make contact with Cecil after that. We both simply turned and hurriedly went our separate ways. I wonder if he’s still there at Uno Pizza or if he decided to move elsewhere a little less macabre.
As I waited at the Greyhound station for my bus, I noticed that none of the twenty people inside talked or got up to go to the bathroom or ate a snack. Fifty minutes passed and no one moved or spoke. I finally had to get up to stretch my legs.
“Why did you stand up?” asked a woman nearby with blank eyes. “Is the bus here already?”
“I just stood up to stretch my legs,” I told her, as everyone turned to watch me. I walked up to the door where the bus driver would be taking our tickets, pulling my luggage behind me. I couldn’t stand their eyes, all of them focused on me, so I finally turned my back on the crowd and waited till the Greyhound bus showed up.
As I sat in the bus, anxiously waiting to leave the station, I noticed a man’s suitcase accidently crash open as it was being loaded under the bus. I was sure I saw a white hard-plastic toy hit the ground before it was hurriedly closed back up and shoved into the cargo hold.
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