This short story is inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis and current events. And, a certain robotic vacuum.
Dogged. Determined. Relentless. These are the attributes that Ivan appreciated and extolled about his robot vacuum. As the COVID-19 days and months wore on, Ivan toiled in his home office as RoVa roamed his house, taking care of its domestic business.
This was bliss. Ivan need not worry about dog hair and dust bunnies as he kept banging away on his keyboard, alone in his office oasis, untouched and unencumbered by social interactions he had found tedious. Now, there was no one to question or correct him. But something changed. He grew irritated by RoVa’s mistakes. He began to critique RoVa’s work, pointing out mud clumps from dog paws that somehow escaped RoVa’s notice. How could RoVa miss something so obvious?
“RoVa, you had one job!,” Ivan complained, futilely nudging the disc to move it in the direction of the offending dried mud. RoVA went about its business, seemingly waving off Ivan. RoVa continued, however, to pick up a shocking amount of dirt and detritus, so Ivan relented with the criticism. After all, RoVa was mostly doing what it claimed it would do: clean up! Hadn’t that been RoVa’s advertising tagline?
RoVa’s behavior became increasingly erratic and sometimes it appeared irritated. Ivan heard RoVa groaning and went to the kitchen to check on it. The machine was stuck under the lip of the kitchen island and emitted a chirpy signal. The chime kind of sounded like: “the virus will disappear.” Ivan reached with his foot to dislodge RoVa and it whirled away in a straight line for the dining room. Ivan figured he must have misheard the error message and returned to his desk.
Scrolling through Twitter, Ivan was stunned to see a massive explosion captured on video in Beirut. Beyond tweets, he began scouring news sites for information on the possible cause. RoVa whizzed down the hallway behind him and seemed to chirp about a “bomb.” Ivan thought he was hearing things. RoVa mindlessly banged into the laundry room door and seemed to say, “attack.” Ivan again thought, for sure, he was hearing things. He had not been feeling well and even wondered if the occasional ache or pain or headache was the harbinger of a full-on COVID infection. Everyone was feeling worse for the wear lately, right?
Ivan washed down a couple of Advil with iced green tea and laid down. A torrent of nightmares washed over him. Events, real and imagined, swirled together in his fevered dreams: a hurricane flood, an argument with his mother, an explosion, his teeth falling out, running late to the airport for an international flight, being at a party unable to remember people’s names. A montage of scary images, abject pain and gripping fear overwhelmed him. He awoke to see tile. Very dirty tiles. Suddenly, he propelled forward and had the sensation he was swallowing crumbs, dirt, dog hair and lint.
To his horror, Ivan realized he had metamorphized into RoVa. Surely, this was just another nightmare, right? He was overcome by a power, like an electric current, running through him, pushing him to keep going, compelled to mow down the dirt and, oddly, repeat incorrect information. Ivan could hear himself – that is RoVA itself – thinking and saying things that made no sense. “Mexico will pay for the Wall,” RoVA bellowed. Ivan could feel gears moving as if he was saying these words, but he didn’t believe the message. And, he recognized that RoVA was becoming more bellicose sounding. Menacing even. “They’re sending rapists.” The machine slammed into the back door and spun around, hitting with such intensity that a burst of dirt fell out of it. “Go back to where you came from!,” RoVa demanded. Ivan felt helpless, trapped inside the vacuum. He tried coughing to remove the dirt from his throat because he wanted to counter RoVa. A small twig dislodged and Ivan managed to whisper in anguish, “you’re wrong.” RoVa rolled under a bureau and deeply sucked in a clump of fur, leaving Ivan feeling choked.
“I wish her well,” RoVa said in a snarky tone. Ivan couldn’t believe it. He was trapped. How could he fix this? Could he reprogram RoVa from inside or would he need to escape the machine and then repair it? “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” RoVa squealed as it entered the master bathroom. The machine came upon a bathmat and got caught up. “You can’t do that!,” RoVa sneered, as mud and fur spewed out from the vacuum’s undercarriage as RoVa tried fighting with the unmoved bathmat.
RoVa tried again to climb over the bathmat, but was flummoxed. It tried with all its might to keep rolling, but the fabric grabbed at its brush rollers and held it down. RoVa couldn’t budge. The vacuum clicked off and emitted a plaintive error message. “Error 45, please reboot RoVa!” The machine sat dormant in front of the mirrored sliding doors to the closet and Ivan didn’t like what he saw in the reflection. RoVa was angry, mean, incompetent and ultimately useless. It even seemed dangerous. But could it be reprogrammed to function evenly-handedly, thoughtfully and productively? Ivan began to pray. At least, RoVa finally stopped talking. There was that relief.
Minutes ticked by. Through the opaque lid of the vacuum disk, Ivan could almost make out the hands on the wall clock. He knew his girlfriend would be home to make dinner. Perhaps she could save the day. Ivan sat in RoVa’s dirt and took stock of what he had become. Surely, there was a way to clean up without making more messes. To be continued?