Peter and Mrs Woolfe

Peter and Mrs Woolfe

© Arnout Brokking
Appeared in Antipodean SF #89 – October 2005

Pete’s gob of spit lands in the gutter with an audible splash, and floats down the drain, towards the aqua-purification center.

Peter Atkinson is standing in line for a booth on 27thAvenue. Behind him a neon sign screams for his attention with a droning sound like a giant electric mosquito. The woman in front of him is clothed in old, mud-crusted rags, and stinks of urine and sweat. Pete’s glad when it’s her turn, and she slides the door of the booth closed behind her. From behind the glass he can hear her answer the computer’s questions.

“…Woolfe.” She says. Her voice is cracked, and speaks of a love for cigarettes.

And then it’s his turn.

The first thing he realises is how quiet it is in the cubicle. Gone is the buzz of sex-shops, the murmur of the masses, and the racket of traffic on the street. An attractive, but otherwise featureless face smiles at him from the monitor.

“Please insert your name.”

The computer uses a pleasant female voice.

“Peter Atkinson.”

“Welcome Peter Atkins, what is your age?”

“No, not Atkins, Atkinso — ” he starts, but the computer interrupts.

“Error, no recognized age given.”

And then, after a moment of silence. “Welcome Peter Atkins, what is your age?”

Peter sighs and rubs his forehead. It’s something he does when he is frustrated.

“Thirty-three. Okay?”

“Thank you. Do you wish me to send a receipt and comments to your family?”

Pete hesitates. Why hadn’t he thought of this?

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Please dictate your message.”

Another spell of silence. What was there to say?

“Geez,” he starts, “I don’t know how to do this. Tell Ellen I’m sorry I never got the courage to ask her to marr…”

The female voice interrupts him again, never slipping out of that agreeable tone. “The space reserved for the message is full. Would you like to purchase another 20 seconds for $10?”

“What? Oh, no.”

The image on the monitor changes and shows multiple pictures tiled horizontally on the screen. There’s a crudely-drawn gallows, an injection needle, and the icon of a handgun. “Which is your preferred way of self-termination? Please press 1 for gas, please press 2 for hanging, please press 3 for an over-dose, please press 4 for a gunshot, please press 5 for a samurai-sword in the lower abdomen, and please press 9 for the Sunday surprise. All of our services bear the city council quality guarantee.”

Pete takes a deep breath and presses the touch-screen. The computer springs to life.

“You have chosen…hanging.”

Peter is surprised by the faint hint of eagerness in the voice of his metallic conversation-partner.

“Please put your head through the noose and wait for the trapdoor to open.”

A white cord lowers itself from the ceiling.

The rope tickles his neck as he waits.

The machine counts down.

5…4…3…2…1… Nothing.

Then the familiar woman/computer: “Error. A malfunction has occurred within the system. Please find another Suicidomat and try again. Our excuses for the inconvenience.”

“Figures…” Pete sighs, and leaves the booth for the neon signs across the street.

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