eXhaurio, Inc.
by Scott Hughes
forum: eXhaurio, Inc.
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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eXhaurio, Inc.


           Harvey Einbinder opened his front door expecting a mailman—or perhaps a UPS man wearing those silly brown shorts—to greet him, but there was no one. Only a three-foot by three-foot blue box with “eXhaurio, Inc.” lettered in yellow on the sides. He’d heard a knock, so where was the person who delivered the package? Harvey stepped out onto the stoop and peered both ways down the deserted street. He eyed the box, then bent over and wrapped his chubby arms around it, nearly throwing out his back as he tried to lift it.

           What’s in here, he thought, lead weights?

           Once more he tried picking it up but succeeded only in ripping the seat of his pants. Then he dragged the box into his house.

* * *

           For years Harvey had wanted a computer, but being neither technologically savvy or financially blessed he’d never considered himself in a position to purchase one. They became cheaper by the day, it seemed (Harvey could remember when a single computer took up an entire room), but still out of his price range.

           Then one night, battling insomnia, he’d lain on the couch staring zombie-eyed at the television. Around four A.M., as sleep began tugging at his eyelids, a commercial came on that caught Harvey’s attention.

           “Are you tired of expensive computers that constantly crash and get choked down with viruses?!” the actor exclaimed as zealously as an evangelical pastor. In fact, he quite resembled one, as well: he wore an immaculate pinstriped suit, his hair was plastered to his head, and his animated face was caked with too much makeup, even for someone on TV. To Harvey, the man looked fake, not quite right somehow, like George Hamilton or a mannequin
magically come to life.

           The actor continued: “Are you sick of buying the most up-to-date PC, only to have it become obsolete within six months?!”

           Harvey propped himself on his elbow.

           “Now, thanks to eXhaurio Computers, Incorporated, for a limited time you can own your own personal computer FOR FREE!”

           “Malarkey,” Harvey muttered.

           “eXhaurio PCs are self-updating and will never become obsolete! They will never crash and are totally immune from viruses, spam, and hackers! eXhaurio PCs come internet ready—no modems or cables! And the best part—they’re ABSOLUTELY FREE! You won’t pay a single red cent!”

           To emphasize this claim, a giant penny filled the screen—Honest Abe staring regally in profile, unaware that he was being used posthumously to hawk computers—with a red X covering it. The penny disappeared, and other letters joined the red X to spell out the company’s name—eXhaurio, Inc., with a little e and capital X.

           “Friggin’ scam,” Harvey said, but he continued to listen.

           The fake man reappeared. “Supplies are extremely limited, so call now! 1-800-555-X-I-N-C. That’s 1-800-555-9462. Call now, while supplies last!”

           The actor was replaced by the company’s name and the flashing phone number.

           “Suckers born every minute,” Harvey mumbled before finally nodding off.

           The first thought to pop in his head when he awoke hours later was of eXhaurio’s free computers. But he suppressed the urge to call their number. Nothing in life was free. Nothing worthwhile, anyway.

           As Harvey went about his day, changing the blade on his push mower and cutting his backyard, his thoughts meandered back to eXhaurio, Inc., and their supposedly free computers.

           Self-updating, the man had said, immune to viruses, internet ready, and the best part… they’re ABSOLUTELY FREE!

           By the time Harvey had finished the lawn, he’d convinced himself that no harm could come from calling the toll-free number to see indeed if it was a scam—calling for investigative purposes, not as a purchaser.

           Surely, they’d want something: a credit card number for “insurance” or “security reasons,” his drivers’ license number, social security number, a small (translation: large) one-time convenience charge, a donation to Greenpeace, a pledge that he’d peddle ten computers to his friends, relatives, or coworkers. Something. If anything, they probably had a phone system like 911 dispatchers that would save his name, address, and phone number into their database, catalogue the information so they could sell it to telemarketers. Those bastards weren’t going to make cent one off of Harvey Einbinder. No, in forty-six years he’d learned one thing: Nothing ever came free. There was always a price.

           But it’s at least worth a call, whispered a voice inside Harvey’s mind, the voice that belonged to the pasty-faced actor from the commercial. People get things for free all the time, Harvey. You’ve just never been one of those privileged people. Well, now you can, Harvey. Now you can.

           Harvey held the phone in his sweaty hand dotted with a confetti of grass clippings. He dialed the number—it was easy enough to remember—and held the receiver to his ear. Instead of ringing, he heard a series of clicks on the other end. Then a recorded female voice answered.

           “Thank you for choosing eXhaurio Computers, Incorporated, for your home PC needs,” she said dryly. “At the tone please leave your full name and home address, and your eXhaurio PC will be delivered in three to six days. Thank you.”

           At the beep Harvey said nothing. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, like a fish struggling for its dying breaths out of water, then he hung up the phone.

           “Gotta be a scam,” he said to his empty kitchen.

           He took a V8 from the fridge, drank half of it, and burped loudly.

           “Has to be a scam. I don’t know how, but it is.”

           Harvey drained the rest of the V8 and burped again.

           Don’t be a paranoid simpleton, Harvey. That voice again. Be a risk-taker. Those are the people who get things for free, who get the red carpet treatment.

           “What the hell. It could be free.”

           He seized the phone and hit redial. The same clicks, same female voice, same recorded message. But this time he spoke after the tone. He left his name and address and hung up before an operator could break in to inform him that he had to enroll in at least three participating program offers to receive his free computer.

           “Damn thing’ll probably never come,” he said.

* * *

           But it had, and now it sat in a box in Harvey’s den. He didn’t own a desk, so he wrestled a foldaway card table from the hall closet, dusted it off, and set it up—along with a chair from the kitchen—in the den by a power outlet. He cut the box’s packing tape with his house keys and folded back the flaps. Then, with the care of an archaeologist unearthing the remains of an ancient civilization, Harvey removed a layer of bubble-wrap and a layer of Styrofoam before reaching the computer. He struggled to hoist it from the box with no luck—it was heavy as hell. Harvey’s job as a part-time maintenance man at Telfair County’s middle school required a fair share of heavy-lifting, so he knew when to say screw it and go for the hand trucks, only he had no hand trucks at home. So, as if easing someone who’s fainted to the ground, he gingerly laid the box on its side and slid the computer out onto the floor. It wasn’t like the sleek machines that Harvey had seen on other commercials or in store windows—they had computers now called notebooks that were the size of, well, notebooks. The eXhaurio PC was boxy and cumbersome, as if the designer had given no thought to its aesthetic appeal.

           No wonder it’s free, thought Harvey. It’s so damn ugly. And it’s probably been used before, or made from recycled parts.

           He grunted.

           On closer inspection, its front panel had a power button, a CD drive, and a slot for 3 ½ inch discs. Below this was a small silver sticker that read “Carver Model,” followed by a series of numbers.

           With great effort Harvey managed to push the computer under the card table. The monitor, which wasn’t nearly as heavy, he placed on the tabletop. Rummaging inside the box for instructions or warranty information or the owner’s manual proved fruitless. Harvey scooped out the remaining bubble-wrap and Styrofoam from the box and found only the keyboard and mouse.

           Setting up the computer couldn’t be too complicated, Harvey thought. It wasn’t like he had to build the thing. But crawling under the card table was difficult—Harvey was no small man, and not so young, either. As soon as he got to the floor, his shin splints flared and his tight face throbbed as blood rushed to his head. His gut, which made him appear as though he’d swallowed a bowling ball, hung out from under his T-shirt.

           Connecting the machine’s components was a breeze. The monitor, keyboard, and mouse all plugged into the computer’s back panel. And the computer itself had only one cord, for the power outlet. Harvey plugged it in. The computer lurched and emitted a shrill bleat, like a piglet getting chomped on the rear by its mother. Harvey jumped, smacking his head on the underside of the card table, and scooted back into the pile of Styrofoam and bubble-wrap.

           “Jumping Jiminy Jesus!” he said, getting to his feet, his shin splints now secondary to the bright pain in his head. He’d clocked himself hard enough to make purple splotches swim across his field of vision.

           Harvey inched toward the computer as he would a cornered animal. Maybe he overloaded the power circuit, he thought, and blew the outlet. But the computer’s power light was still on. The monitor blinked to life and across the black screen letters appeared:


           “How’s it know my name?” Harvey asked no one. Then it occurred to him that the company must’ve programmed his name into the computer prior to shipment. As he slid the chair over and sat down, the message was replaced by a blue background filled with various icons.

           “Ha!” Harvey said.

           A tiny man—a cartoonish caricature of the gentleman from the commercial—strolled onto the screen. “Hello, Mr. Einbinder! I’m your personalized guide to your new eXhaurio computer, but you can call me Sid. If you would like to begin the tutorial, please press the Enter button.”

           Harvey scanned the keyboard, found it, and pressed it.

           “Very well,” said Sid. “Let’s get on with the tutorial, shall we?”

           Over the next hour Harvey remained at the computer becoming acquainted with the basics of the machine and its programs, how to use the mouse, how to navigate the internet, and much, much more. Once the tutorial was done, Sid said that if Harvey ever needed assistance, to click the special icon—a miniature version of Sid’s face—at the bottom right of the screen.

           “Happy computing!” Sid exclaimed. He waved and ambled off the screen, as if heading to his digital home and digital family for a quaint digital dinner.

           Harvey double-clicked on the internet icon. He had never used the internet before. He’d known of it, of course—he didn’t live in a cave—but he’d never seen it for himself. He started by perusing sports sites, skimming through the news on how the Braves were faring in the division series. He hadn’t kept up with them much in the past few years. Harvey wasn’t a baseball man. Football, now there was a game. Chet Merkin, a guy Harvey worked with at the school, once told him that football was prose and baseball was poetry. Harvey preferred prose. Poetry was for fairies and the French. Harvey skimmed the baseball webpages, then searched for news on the Falcons, even though he preferred college ball. A link on the Falcons’ page led him to a site devoted to his favorite team—the Georgia Bulldogs. Harvey’s idea of a Saturday afternoon well-spent was watching the game muted on TV while listening to the commentary by Larry Munson on the radio.

           Hours later, Harvey had perused sites for hockey, basketball, NASCAR, motocross, soccer, and even lawnmower racing.

           His stomach croaked. Harvey glanced at his watch. Past four A.M. His eyes ached deep in their sockets and seemed to throb with each thump of his heart. He was hungry—starving, in fact—but also nauseated, probably from staring at the monitor. Leaving the computer on, he stumbled through the darkling house to the bathroom. He fumbled with stiff hands through the medicine cabinet, knocking plastic bottles into the sink, until he grasped the antacid tablets. He munched four of them and swallowed the chalky paste. He tried to force out a belch, then popped two more tablets.

           His bleary mind could only form simple thoughts: Bed. Sleep.

* * *

           The phone woke him. Harvey shuffled into the kitchen, the phone still ringing. He picked up the receiver.

           “Hello?” he said groggily.

           “Harvey?” A man’s voice. Familiar.

           “Yeah. Who’s this?”

           “Tom Simmons, Harvey. What happened to you this morning?”

           Agitation in the voice, which didn’t surprise Harvey. Tom Simmons was the Assistant Principal of the middle school and one of Harvey’s bosses. Harvey was supposed to go in to work this morning. The clock over the stove showed 3:15 in the afternoon.

           “I, uh…” He nearly admitted to oversleeping. “I got sick. Fever, throwing up. I’m in a pretty bad way.” Harvey felt thirteen again, faking an illness to weasel out of a test.

           “Well, you should’ve let someone know, Harvey.” Harvey could tell from the flatness in Simmons’s voice that the man knew he was lying. “Come in Thursday morning. We’ve got new lockers that need to be installed.”

           “Sure thing, Mr. Simmons.”

           Harvey hung up the phone before Simmons could continue. No work until Thursday meant nearly two whole days with the computer. He went to the den, carrying with him a bucket of leftover fried chicken from the fridge.

           The monitor was blank, except for this message:


           Harvey tapped the space bar.

* * *

           Like a vulture, Harvey had picked the chicken bones clean. He still was hungry. His stomach growled again even though he’d already eaten six pieces, so without taking his eyes off the computer screen he reached over to fish another drumstick from the grease-stained bucket. His hand hit the bucket and knocked it off the table, spilling bones and soggy fried bits across the floor.

           “Aw, dammit,” Harvey said. He glanced back at the monitor—at his game of solitaire—then got to his hands and knees to clean the mess. As he scooped up the strewn bones and bits of fried skin, he noticed an uneaten thigh between the computer and the wall. Harvey retrieved it, tossed it into the bucket, and saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Something that hadn’t been there before. A purple cord, the width of his pinky, extended from the back of the computer to the wooden floor. No, through the wooden floor.

           “What the…”

           Harvey leaned in for a closer look. There was now a small hole in the floor, just wide enough for the purple cable to fit through. Powdery sawdust lined the lip of the hole, reminding him of how carpenter bees had made holes in his lawnmower shed.

           Harvey touched the cord. Something was moving—like water coursing through a pipe—beneath its rubber tubing.

           “Christamighty, what is this?”

           Harvey stood and gaped at the computer, and the cable, for some time. He dug a flashlight from a kitchen drawer and started for the backdoor when his stomach rumbled. Despite the chicken he’d wolfed down, he felt like he hadn’t eaten in days, so he dug through the slim pickings in his fridge until he found half a pack of hotdogs toward the back. He hadn’t the slightest inkling of how old they were, but at the moment he didn’t care. He took one out and chomped it in two bites. Then he ate another, and another. As he opened his mouth to devour a fourth, his thoughts returned to the purple cable, so he put back the hotdogs and headed out the backdoor with the flashlight.

           The crawlspace entrance was on the west side of his house, so he’d have to shimmy twenty or so feet under the house along the ground to reach the area beneath the den on the east side. He removed the wooden panel that covered the entrance and shone the flashlight into the crawlspace. Nothing but darkness, dirt, and spiders. Maybe a mouse. Nothing that
bothered Harvey. He hunkered to step through the opening, then scooted along on his hand (his other grasping the flashlight) and knees. Cobwebs tickled his nose—Harvey didn’t mind spiders, but having their webs stick to his face was damn annoying—as he spotted the lavender cable stretching from his floorboards overhead straight to the ground. Harvey touched the cord. It was as taut as a guitar string, with the same sensation of running water beneath the rubber exterior.

           Harvey pulled at the end of the cable closest to the ground, but it remained snugly in the earth. Harvey plucked it like a harp string. Where did it go, and who the hell had put it there? Or had it grown like a root from his computer into the ground?

           Harvey chuckled nervously. Nah, he thought. That’s crazy.

           He stared at the cable for a minute, panting from all the clambering along the ground, then exited the crawlspace.

           Back in the den, a new message was on the blank screen:


           When he saw the computer, numbness spread in Harvey’s stomach, like someone was holding an icepack to his genitals. He tapped randomly at the keyboard until the message disappeared and the normal background returned. Harvey sat and tried to steer his thoughts away from the purple cord.

           —it bored its way through the floor like a worm and dug itself into the ground lord only knows how deep and to where christamighty where—

           He didn’t even want to try to rationalize its sudden manifestation. It was one of those things that would drive you batty if you tried to figure it out. Best not to dwell on it.

           It’s back there, Harvey thought. So what? It’s not hurting anything.

           As he rested his hand on the mouse, he noticed the icon in the bottom right corner. The one that resembled the face of the digital guide, Sid. Harvey clicked on the icon. Sid moseyed onto the screen, a vampiric grin on his face.

           “How can I be of service?” he asked. “Please type a word, phrase, or question into this box.” Sid held up one of his hands and a white, rectangular box appeared there. He looked like a waiter carrying a large white tray. A cursor blinked in the box, so Harvey typed “PURPLE CABLE” and hit Enter.

           Sid tapped a finger on his chin, as if probing the depths of his own computerized brain to recall the information.

           “Sorry,” he said pleasantly, “no matches.”

           Harvey typed “PURPLE CORD” and hit Enter.

           Sid thought. “Sorry, no matches.”


           “Sorry, no matches.”

           He offered Sid dozens of phrases and questions relating to the cable, but after each attempt Sid would cheerfully reply that sorry, there were no matches.

           Harvey gave up and clicked on the face icon. Sid waved goodbye before leaving the screen.

           “They said no cables,” Harvey grumbled.

* * *

           Harvey tried to sleep, but in bed he couldn’t stop thinking of all the things he was missing—he was connected to the entire world now. Harvey had never smoked or done drugs—he drank occasionally but was hardly what you’d call a “drinker”—but now he knew how smokers and druggies and alcoholics felt while jonesing for their next fix. So he’d forsaken sleep and returned to the computer.

           Around nine A.M. Harvey’s phone rang. He knew who was calling, so he didn’t answer. It rang again at nine-thirty and once more at ten. Then no more. He was supposed to work this morning, to install new lockers. No doubt Mr. Simmons had been calling to tell Harvey to shag ass and get to the school. Maybe the last call was to inform Harvey he was out of a job. That was fine. Harvey had seen plenty of ads on the internet for jobs he could do from home on his computer (WORK FROM HOME! BE YOUR OWN BOSS! USE YOUR PC TO MAKE MILLIONS!). No longer did Harvey have to answer to the Tom Simmonses of the world.

           Harvey felt too weak to leave the house. He was hungry. No, famished. Drained. Standing for more than ten minutes made him feel woozy, so he stayed parked in front of his eXhaurio PC most of the day, occasionally venturing into the kitchen to root through the stale chips and moldy bread in his pantry. Harvey needed groceries. He’d eaten nearly everything in his house and still couldn’t fill his stomach. He’d found sites on the internet where you could order groceries and have them delivered to your doorstep, but for some reason none of the companies would deliver to his town. McRea was too small, Harvey guessed. Canned corn and smelly sandwich meat would have to suffice. Harvey munched on these, not really tasting them, as he stared at the computer.

           At dusk a searing pain shot through Harvey’s head, like he’d sucked down a cold drink too fast. The pain was momentary, but intense. He winced, stood, and staggered on shaky legs to the bathroom for an aspirin. As he closed the medicine cabinet, he caught a glimpse of his reflection. Harvey poked his cheeks, which were speckled with stubble. He’d always been overweight and was used to the flabby-jowls that normally stared back at him from a mirror. But now his cheeks were flat, almost sunken. His eyes were yellow orbs surrounded by puffy, purplish skin.

           Harvey grunted and looked down. His stomach, too, appeared lessened. He hooked a thumb into the waistband of his pants and tugged out. They were roomier than a few days before.

           Now, how’d I lose weight sitting in front of that computer? he wondered. And I’ve been eating like a pig at the trough, too.


           He popped two aspirin and headed back to the den, and as he did so he happened to glance behind the computer. What he saw there didn’t fully register until he sat down and thought, Is that purple cord bigger?

           Harvey knelt beside the PC—kneeling wasn’t as troublesome now with fewer inches around his middle—and peered at the cable. Two days ago it had been the width of his pinky finger. Now it was wider than a garden hose, and sluggishly it expanded and contracted, like the sides of a napping dog. Harvey reached for the cord, then froze, remembering the message that had appeared on the computer’s screen—DO NOT TOUCH THE CABLE, MR. EINBINDER! Unknown to Harvey, the same message was there again, repeating enough times to fill the screen. But Harvey’s attention was solely on the cable. He wrapped his fingers around the cable and nearly recoiled from its moist, spongy texture, and for a split-second the cable stopped pulsating, as if it had noticed him.

           “This ain’t right,” Harvey said. “They promised no cables, so this shouldn’t be here.”

           With both hands he gripped the cord and yanked hard. No luck. Harvey turned the computer around so that its back faced him, and then braced his feet against it and pulled the cord again. Still, the cord didn’t come free, not even a quarter of an inch.

           Harvey cursed and released the cord. He marched from the den, returning a minute later with a pair of bolt-cutters that he had “borrowed” from work, where he used them to cut padlocks off of lockers. He stood over the computer and held the open blades over the purple cord. Snip. The bolt-cutters sliced through the cable like scissors through string cheese. Red fluid hemorrhaged from the severed end of the cord as it writhed on the floor like a beheaded snake or a nightcrawler impaled on a fisherman’s hook. Gagging, Harvey darted to the hall closet and snatched down as many towels as he could carry. He hurried back into the den, and just before he threw the towels over the whole mess his eyes fixed on the cable once more. It had stopped squirming but continued to spurt red into a spreading puddle.

           —my god it’s bleeding it’s spouting blood all over my floor it looks like i’ve murdered someone—

           Fortunately, his gorge had settled.

           “Must be some kind of computer oil,” Harvey reassured himself.

           The power light on the computer’s front panel was no longer on, and the monitor was black (with no messages), reflecting Harvey’s sallow face back at him. He tapped the monitor. Static crackled as his fingertips touched the screen. He pressed the power button repeatedly. Nothing.

           “Come on,” Harvey pleaded. “Work, dammit!”

           Pushing aside the clump of goop-soaked towels, he unplugged the power cord from the wall. He braced himself for the computer to make a noise as he plugged it back in, but the computer made no sound. And it still had no power.

           In the kitchen, Harvey called the 800-number from eXhaurio’s commercial and heard the monotone female voice telling him to leave his name and address to receive his free PC, but there were no instructions for contacting the company or customer service about a problem. Harvey hung up the phone and went out back where he’d tossed the eXhaurio box. He searched every square inch of the cardboard, thinking the company might have printed a different phone number on it, but the only writing on the box was “eXhaurio, Inc.”

           Harvey punted the empty box next to his lawnmower shed and stormed back inside. His breathing had become labored. The den tilted to one side, and Harvey could barely stand. He collapsed onto the couch and, within minutes, was snoring.

* * *

           Knocking at his front door. Harvey opened his eyes. The light in the den was still on, but outside the sun had long since set. Harvey looked at his watch—just after midnight.

           Another knock.

           “Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Harvey huffed, sitting up on the couch. His head felt as if it was squeezed between two boards and bound tightly with duct tape. The knocking continued. Harvey made his way to the door and began to open it. “This better be good. I don’t know who you think you are banging on my—”

           Harvey’s words stuck in his throat. On his front stoop were two men who stood no taller than Harvey’s stomach. Their skin was powdery white, like an albino’s, which contrasted drastically with their baggy, dark blue jumpsuits, the kind mechanics wear. They reminded Harvey of Count Orlok from the black-and-white horror flick Nosferatu: bald heads too large for their bodies; dark, protruding eyes, as if their eyeballs wanted free from the sockets; thin red lips curled into smiles. Their jumpsuits had nametags: apparently, their names were Fingal and Erland.

           “Good evening, Mr. Einbinder,” Fingal said in a voice both raspy and childlike. “Computer problems, no?”

           Harvey nodded, his jaw stupidly hanging open.

           “We’re servicemen from eXhaurio.”

           They squeezed past him into the den, Erland carrying a large toolbox. The eXhaurio logo was emblazoned on the backs of their jumpsuits.

           Harvey closed the front door. “I didn’t call anyone.”

           The servicemen crouched behind the computer and whispered. They pushed aside the pile of towels and saw the dried red ooze on the floor and the purple cable lying lifeless on the floor. Their bulbous eyes grew even wider. They opened the oversized toolbox, took out two rags, and began wiping up the dried oil.

           “I didn’t call anyone,” Harvey repeated, taking a hesitant step forward.

           Fingal looked up at him. “Don’t worry, Mr. Einbinder. We’ll have your computer working in no time.”

           “How’d you know it messed up? That cable—”

           “Never touch the cable, Mr. Einbinder!” hissed Erland. Fingal shot his partner a contemptuous look, and Erland went back to work.

           Fingal turned back to Harvey with a genial expression. “This cable keeps you connected to our network, Mr. Einbinder. If it ever becomes disconnected, we know.”

           “Why are you here so late?” Harvey asked. “I cuh… The cable broke almost five hours ago.”

           “Broke,” grumbled Erland.

           Fingal ignored him. “We had other house calls before you, Mr. Einbinder.”

           “Oh.” Harvey wondered if the other eXhaurio customers had cleaved their purple cords, as well.

           “Don’t worry, Mr. Einbinder. We’ll have your computer in tiptop shape in no time. You should get some rest. You look peaked. Have you been eating?”

           Harvey thought what an odd question that was for Fingal to ask, but he heard himself say, “A lot.” His eyelids felt suddenly heavy. “I don’t have… much food…”

           “Sleep, Mr. Einbinder,” Fingal said soothingly. “Sleep.”

           Harvey shuffled to the couch and lay down. He began to drift off while the servicemen worked furiously behind the computer. Just before sleep found him, he heard Fingal say, “Don’t touch the purple cable, Mr. Einbinder. Ever. Just enjoy your computer.”

           When Harvey awoke, the sun was out and the servicemen were gone. They had cleaned up every drop of the red oil and had even washed, dried, and folded the towels Harvey had draped over the mess. The towels weren’t even stained. In the kitchen Harvey found several bags worth of groceries on his counter and in his refrigerator. That’s nice of them, I guess, he thought. He returned to the den and inspected their work: The purple cord, which had returned to the width of Harvey’s pinky, was reconnected to the computer. They’d done such a skillful job that he couldn’t see the seam where they’d patched the cable.

           They probably gave me a whole new cord, he thought.

           He was relieved now that he knew the cable’s purpose—to keep him connected to eXhaurio’s network, whatever that meant. He switched on the computer’s power as he sat at the card table. The PC hummed to life, and instantly the sensation of being plugged into the world bloomed in Harvey’s brain.

           Before the regular icon screen appeared, a message flashed briefly on the blank monitor:


           “Good morning,” said Harvey.

* * *

           Harvey spent the next three days at the computer, only leaving the den to grab something to eat from the groceries the servicemen had left him. Then something changed. One evening, after eating a frozen dinner he didn’t bother to microwave, Harvey sat at the computer and stared at the monitor. He didn’t touch the mouse or keyboard, didn’t go onto the internet or play any games. He only stared. For eighteen straight hours he gawked empty-eyed at the screen, his only movements the slight rising and falling of his chest as he breathed. In his mind, however, he was still playing hearts with people from around the world, checking his email account for new messages, and searching for nude pictures of Madonna. Late that night he slunk off to bed.

           The next day he did the same. And the next day. And the next. He slept little, and despite consuming all the food in his kitchen, he’d lost nearly thirty pounds. Harvey felt hollow, but a different part of him—the part that was connected—felt alive and fulfilled, but only when he sat at the computer.

           The computer began to make sounds. Squishes, squeaks, thumps, and throbs. Sounds of contentment, like the purring of a housecat.

* * *

           Clusters of fierce thunderstorms had settled over most of Georgia, knocking out the power to many homes. The storms had yet to reach Harvey’s neighborhood but were still causing hiccups in the power all over the state. In the middle of Harvey’s daily staring marathon, the den light dimmed, then went out. The computer screen blinked off. The power was out for only a moment, but that was long enough to break Harvey’s focus.

           “No,” he said. “Come on!”

           As if obeying him, the den light came back on, as did the computer, which immediately made mucid sounds again.

           “What in the name of Moses…”

           Harvey leaned over to listen. Something was moving inside the computer. Something wet. He placed his hand on top of the computer and drew it away quickly. The PC was burning up, hot enough to redden Harvey’s palm. Then he saw the purple cord. It was now thicker than Harvey’s arm and was clumped and knotted like a snake swallowing too many rabbits. It pulsated, quicker than before, and made Harvey think of an esophagus pulling food into a stomach. An esophagus without a body.

           The sight horrified him, but a more grotesque thought occurred to him. All the weight he’d lost, the feeling of emptiness—of being drained—he’d felt. This computer was somehow responsible. It was like an esophagus feeding a stomach, and he was the food.

           Harvey knocked the computer on its side and, despite its heat, clawed savagely at its corners. He grabbed a screwdriver from a kitchen drawer and used it to pry open one side of the computer. Then he pulled away the panel. There were no wires or circuits or microchips inside. Instead, he found a translucent sac filled with reddish fluid. The computer emitted a high-pitched squeal. Harvey stabbed the sac with the screwdriver, then tore it open with his hands. Red fluid spilled from the computer, exposing its contents. Harvey turned his head away and wretched.

           The computer was filled with organs. Human organs. A heart, a liver, lungs, intestines, a brain—all of them connected by thin strands of muscle tissue. The organs shuddered and sloshed, continuing its piercing whine.

           Harvey jabbed at the purple cord with the screwdriver. Red fluid drenched his face and chest and arms. Finally, he hacked the cable in two and it wriggled on the floor, spilling more redness everywhere. Harvey still couldn’t lift the computer, so he hauled it through the den, through the kitchen, and into the backyard. The rain would come soon, so he had to hurry. He ran back into the house, grabbed the monitor and keyboard and mouse, and threw them on top of the computer in the yard. In the shed he found the gasoline can and a pack of matches. As he emptied the can’s contents on the computer, Harvey felt the world begin to spin around him. He hoped that he wasn’t too weak; he had to stay conscious, only for another few seconds.

           He struck a match and tossed it onto the gas-soaked computer.

           The world blurred to a hazy gray, and Harvey collapsed. The computer burned.

* * *

           Harvey opened his eyes. He was back inside his house. Orange light of dusk shone through the slits in the window blinds and rained pelted the roof like thousands of knuckles rapping on a tabletop. Standing over him were the two albino servicemen, Fingal and Erland. Harvey tried to move but couldn’t. He was on his couch, his arms and legs securely bound. Harvey struggled against the restraints.

           “You shouldn’t have done that, Mr. Einbinder,” said Fingal.

           Harvey looked behind the servicemen. They’d piled together the charred remains of the computer on the den floor.

           “What is that thing?” Harvey asked.

           “It’s your computer,” Erland said. “Well, it was.”

           “That’s not a computer,” Harvey spat. “It’s… I don’t know what the hell it is, but it ain’t a computer. It was feeding off me.”

           The servicemen smiled. “We know,” Fingal said. “It draws your—what would you people call it?—your essence and feeds it to the boss.”

           “The boss?” echoed Harvey.

           “Athumos,” Erland said reverently. “He’s the boss.”

           Harvey could picture it clearly in his mind. Somewhere deep underground was a gigantic, quivering grub with hundreds—or thousands? or millions?—of purple cables snaking into its spongy, segmented body, sucking life from people like Harvey to feed itself. Athumos.

           “Untie me!” Harvey said, squirming futilely to free himself.

           “We can’t do that, Mr. Einbinder,” said Fingal. “We have our orders.”

           “Orders?” Harvey said. “What are you gonna do to me?”

           “Don’t you know?” Erland asked, fighting back a sheepish grin.

           “After dark,” explained Fingal, “we’re taking you with us.”

           “Where?” Harvey asked.

           “To our factory. You’re going to become a computer.”

           “It’s an honor to be a computer,” said Erland. “It’s an honor to serve the boss.”

           A murderous shriek rang in Harvey’s ears. Who’s that? he thought. Who’s screaming? Then it dawned on him that the scream was inside his head. Harvey wanted to scream. He tried. All that escaped him was a whimper, but it was lost in the tumult of rain and thunder.

* * *

           Debbie Johnston towed the heavy box into her living room. She was giddy, like a child at Christmas. It was her first computer, and she’d gotten it free. She’d seen a commercial on late-night television and dialed the number that very minute. A week passed, her anticipation bubbling over like an unwatched pot on the stove. She’d heard her doorbell and ran to answer it. Expecting to meet a delivery man at her door, she found only a box with “eXhaurio, Inc.” on its sides.

           After much struggling, she finally managed to wrestle the computer from the box. She stroked it as if it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She ran her fingers over its small silver sticker, on which was etched “Einbinder Model,” followed by a series of numbers.

           “Einbinder Model?” Debbie said. “What kind of name is that?”

           She giggled and returned to the box. She didn’t know much about computers, but she knew there had to be a screen and a keyboard at least. And the instructions. She had no idea how to hook up one of these things. She’d need all the help she could get, and she wanted to hurry. She couldn’t wait to plug it in and turn it on. She couldn’t wait to get connected.




copyright 2006 Scott Hughes.

Scott Hughes:
In May 2004, I graduated from the creative writing program at Georgia College & State University with a Masters of Fine Arts, where I was the Assistant Fiction Editor and Managing Editor for Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture. I currently teach English at Windsor Academy and Central Georgia Technical College. My writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, Redivider, Strange Horizons, and Chiaroscuro and is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review and Seasons in the Night.

link to silverthought.com