It Is the Voice That Unnerves Me

Dorie's memory of her deceased husband is being tainted by his Remembrance, a device that simulates his personality.

I have only started to hate my husband after his death.

It is cold in the bedroom Irving and I once shared. The nurse has draped a thick blanket over my legs which spills over the wheels of my power chair, but I cannot stop shivering. I am cold, but also angry. Of all the devices scattered around my room—the picture frames that are actually electronic portals to relatives who never use them, the thermostat that senses my body heat but never gets the temperature right, the switches that automatically dim the lights too dark for me to see by—I only think about one. It sits on my bureau, a small, squat, black circle. When it is on, it glitters with a dim ring of blue lights. I could fit it in my hand. Were it not for my arthritis, I could crush it.

“Doris, god fucking damn it, what have you done?”

It speaks in Irving’s voice. The calming baritone that used to whisper silly stories so I would fall asleep, who told me that he loved me and hoped I would never forget him.

“I haven’t done a thing!” I shout at him—at it. “I only did what you wanted me to.”

“That’s okay, Dorie-dums. I know you’re trying your best.”

The voice mellows instantly. I sigh and move my hand away from the device.

“Did you have a good day?” I test to see if it is working again.

“Oh, a bit of a dusty one,” Irving says, and I chuckle at the echo of his dry humor. The room is indeed clouded with dust. I can feel it with every breath. It is not until you are old that you think about breathing, the energy it costs you, and how much longer you can keep it up.

“Should I blow you off?”

“Shh! Dorie, what if the kids hear that?”

I bark with laughter, and I hear my late husband’s voice laugh with me. I breathe deeply, and suddenly feel myself shudder. There is still something about this whole situation that doesn’t feel right—an echo of his anger that unsettles me.

“I only did this because you asked me to,” I say. “You insisted.”

“Did I make the wrong decision?”

I hold my breath. “No.” I do not tell it that I’m really not sure since I am worried it will grow angry with me again.

“It doesn’t sound like you believe that.”

I curse under my breath at whoever programmed the thing to hear the lack of confidence in my voice.

“What did you say?”

Its anger returns. Somehow it heard me. My real husband, whose hearing declined in his last years, would never have picked up on my mumbling, nor would he have responded if he did. A small divergence, but a revealing one.

I could turn it off. I could stop its cruel impersonation easily. But turning it off would mean the end. I have tried before, and I am not ready for the end.

“I said I love you, Irv.”

“Dorie, you know I love you too.”

After being alone with the thing all night, I usually look forward to my nurse arriving in the morning, but today I feel a tingle of anxiety when he arrives. He reminds me, without needing to, that I have an appointment.

“The young lady is waiting for you,” the nurse says. He sounds nothing like my late husband, which puts me at ease. It took me months to trust him when he skirted behind my chair and wheeled me out of the bedroom. Now, I sit back quietly as we roll slowly down the stairs and into my kitchen, the gyroscope below the seat holding me level so I can get a good look at my guest.

“It’s great to meet you, Doris.”

The reporter is indeed very young—I try not to guess the decades between us. Her demeanor is very crafted, so she is young enough to still care about things like appearances and first impressions. Her brown hair is tied back into a professional-looking ponytail. Her eyes do not find mine.

“Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me,” she says, and I hear a note of nerves. Am I an intimidating figure?

“Oh please, make yourself at home,” I say. “And call me Dorie.”

“No problem, Doris. I’m so grateful for your time,” she says again. Then, she adds hastily, “I’m so sorry, you can call me Julia.”

Her fingers are twitching over her recording pad, drawing lines on the tablet. “I appreciate you reaching out to me,” she says.

“It was all him.” I pointed back at the nurse. “I don’t use my Feed anymore. He saw your request for sources and gave me the address to message.”

“Now, you own a Remembrance, is that correct?” she asks.

“Aren’t you going to ask how I am?” I interrupt her.

She looks up, startled, and tries to correct herself. “I—I’m sorry—”

“No, don’t worry about it,” I apologize. “I’m just feeling a bit on edge these days.”

“Because of…”

“Yes, because of that. To answer your question, yes, I do own a Remembrance. A two-point-four, or something…”

“Two-point-two,” my nurse corrects me.

“Yes, yes, that’s the one.”

“So, one of the earlier ones?” Julia asks.

“My husband told me to get it for him. He knew one of the people who owned the original version, but he couldn’t afford it. They say the first one was better. The second one was cheaper. Is that what you’re hearing?”

“That is what I’m hearing, yes,” Julia says. “I’ve spoken with some people who used Version 1, some on Version 2 like you, and others on the later versions. I assume you know the origin story of these things, so I can skip that—”

“Actually, I don’t.”

“Oh.” Julia seems flustered. I guess she must not deal much with old people like me—people who don’t spend hours a day on their Feeds.

“I spoke with the founders last year,” she says. “But they didn’t give me an interview for this piece. They made a prototype of the Remembrance on their grandparents. They recorded their voices and installed them into an old home voice assistant, then used a language processing algorithm to replicate their speech after they died. They captured such a faithful adaptation that they decided everyone had to experience it—or so they say.”

Julia continues, quickly regaining her footing. “They spent five years perfecting the algorithm before releasing Version 1. Within a few months, the waiting list was thousands of people long. Videos of people breaking down into tears when they heard their dead relatives again went viral.”

Julia turns her tablet around, where she has called up a video. When she waves her finger above the tablet, the video plays, showing three of the Remembrances arranged in a circle on a table and talking to each other.

“How was your round of golf?” one asks.

“I don’t remember the last time I had no handicap!” another jokes in reply.

The living relatives in the video have their faces in their hands, and I realize they are weeping.

The Remembrances continue speaking.

“What did you think of the wind on the fifth hole?” the first one asks

“I don’t know,” the second replies.

“I don’t know,” agrees the third.

“I don’t know,” the first one chimes in.

The three devices continue in an endless loop of “I don’t knows,” and the relatives, wiping away their tears, burst out laughing as the video ends.

“The founders released Version 2, but as you said, some people thought it was rushed out to satisfy the demand. Apparently, they were less secure. Some of them have been hacked. This is what I’m writing my story about—based on what you described, I think that’s what happened to yours.”

I am glad my nurse came down with me. I slump back in my seat so heavily I roll nearly five feet in my chair, and he rushes to arrest my momentum, though the chair has already adjusted to my sudden movement. The anger I felt at the Remembrance boils back up inside me. Irving’s angry shouts had always rung false to me. Now I know why.

“I take it that hadn’t occurred to you?” Julia asks.

I shake my head, trying to maintain my composure.

“So, what exactly has the Remembrance done that has frightened you so much?”

“It is…not my husband,” I explain. “He and I had a happy marriage—almost fifty years. Now he yells at me. He curses me. He tells me to go fuck myself and shut the hell up even though he almost never said anything like that in his life—and certainly not to me.”

“Mmhmm…” the reporter says, taking furious notes. I see a flashing light on the tablet and assume she is recording the conversation as well.

“The worst part,” I say, “is that the angry things he says are just as smart as the regular things. I never lost an argument in my life until I tried to match wits with that hell machine.”

“Hell…machine…” Julia mutters as she writes.

I have a small panic. “Would you mind not quoting me on that?”

She stops writing and looks up. “Why not?”

“Look, I don’t want it to sound like I’ve always hated the thing,” I say. “At first, I was so happy to hear Irv again. I’d say goodnight to him, and he’d tell me to sleep tight. It was so nice. But it’s like anyone else—if you trust them for a long time and suddenly they lash out at you…”

“I understand,” Julia says.

It is my turn to be nervous. I look around the kitchen—the brushed metallic stovetop where Irving had made me dinner, the Intelligent Sink where he washed our food with the exact amount of water needed, the food processor the nurse installed to make meals easier on his decaying teeth. I should feel wistful and comforted, perhaps even a bit sad. Instead, I feel bitter.

“Aren’t the Remembrances supposed to recognize the voices of people speaking to them and tailor their responses accordingly?” I ask.

“Yes, but the founders themselves admit this function doesn’t work perfectly,” Julia says. “So, the lines you’re hearing from your husband could theoretically be meant for someone else.”

I shiver. “Could the hackers have caused the machine to invent lines that weren’t recorded?”

Julia shook her head. “I’ve spoken with a few security experts who don’t think that’s possible. The outbursts people hear are in the right voices. The Remembrances have the ability to lightly alter the speed and pitch of the recorded lines to fit the conversation, but they can’t self-generate content.”

“Can they not just fix it? Patch it over?” I can hear my voice beginning to shake.

“Well, that’s part of the problem,” Julia says. “The hack isn’t affecting the device. It’s affecting the sound files in a way that’s made them forget their original context tags, become permanently corrupted, and wipe their backup versions. If you buy a new Remembrance today, you can just manually back up the files on an external drive. But if you didn’t do that already and you got hacked, the files aren’t coming back.”

I look away from the reporter.

“Take your time with this next question,” Julia says. “I realize it’s difficult to answer. When did your husband first start yelling those things while he was recording for the Remembrance?”

Our family room had been festooned with holiday decorations and twinkling lights. The smell of roasted vegetables wafted in from the kitchen. But Irving did not appear to be in the spirit.

With his stiff hands, Irv had shaken open the sleek gray cardboard box and had cupped a fine metal chain, letting it run through his fingers. At the end of the chain hung a small square device, flat, and matte black. He hung the chain around his neck and fumbled with the instruction manual.

“Just like you said,” I said, but his eyes were down.

“Place device around neck…OK, I did that…” he said. “Choking hazard…children under 12…yeah yeah…warranty information…press button to activate. What button?”

He picked up the black device from where it rested on his sternum and examined it.

“Isn’t it what you asked for?” I repeated.

“What? Oh yes, Dorie, thank you.”

He found a stray golf pencil on the coffee table and pressed a minuscule button on the back of the black device. I heard a faint beep as it turned on.

“Test…test…test…” he said. “So, I just keep this on until…you know…?”

“You can take it off to charge it,” I said, forestalling him, “or when you’re in the shower if you want.”

I felt a pang of guilt. He looked at the device as if it were the last thing he’d ever lay eyes on. Any cheer had seeped out of the room. I pictured thousands of people our age opening the same gray boxes, with the same glum and resigned looks: happy they had been thought of highly enough to receive such a gift but dismayed that such a concrete sign of their finite lives now sat in their hands, listening to them with its electronic ear, as innocently as if it were a toy.

“Irv, I didn’t mean to…you know. You asked for it, right?”

“Where’s the little personal assistant part?” He changed the subject.

“Oh, that comes separately,” I said, then hastily added, “I won’t be getting that for a while.”

“All this pomp and circumstance for a little necklace, then?”

“It wasn’t that much.”

“So, I’m bargain-bin material now, am I?”

I looked at him, wounded. We sat in silence for a few minutes, not looking at each other.

The smoke detector sounded in the kitchen, tearing through the silence. Irv had forgotten about the rice on the stove.

“Shit shit shit,” he said, sprinting into the kitchen. “Son of a bitch. God damn it.”

When he came back, he stood at the entrance to the family room, slumped his shoulders, and let out a ragged sigh.

Irv came over and hugged me. I rubbed his back as we stood there. I could feel him leaning on me, trusting me to hold up his replaced knees and arthritic ankles. There was something almost pitiful about it, as if he had finally accepted his approaching end and just wanted someone else to acknowledge it. I could feel his little black device against my collarbone.

“I’m sorry, hon, I know I’m ruining the holiday,” he said. “Thanks so much for getting this for me.”

“Oh, honey, you’re welcome. You know I’m just trying to get you things you want. I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“That’s okay, Dorie-dums. I know you’re trying your best.”

“You bitch. God damn it.”

The Remembrance sits on my kitchen table, where the nurse has placed it. I am already regretting giving in to Julia’s request for a demonstration.

I recognize the b-word from Irv’s frustrated outburst that Christmas long ago. He almost never said it, and the anger with which he strikes the monosyllabic curse leaves me with no doubt of its origin. But when he originally said it, he was not saying it to me, I explain to Julia. And, I swear, the device has added a note of venom that Irv’s voice never carried.

“So are you angry that the Remembrance has changed not just the context, but the tone of what your husband said?” Julia asks, clinically.

Yes!” I say, suddenly angry at both the device and Julia. “Why wouldn’t I be upset at that?”

The Remembrance hears me. “You put me here! This is all your fault!”

I pause, trying to remember when Irv said any of these things. The whole message felt disjointed, as if the device were stringing together individual words rather than phrases.

“You’re lying.” I snap back.

“Go to hell.”

There is a moment of shocked pause, then I hear that ragged sigh again. The entire kitchen sits in silence for a few torturous seconds.

“Dorie, I’m sorry, I’m being a jerk again. You know I’m trying to control myself.”

I try to muster the sympathy I once felt for Irv—wonderful, imperfect Irv—but it does not come to me so easily.

“Try harder.” I say.

“I’m trying so hard, Dorie, you know that. It’s not easy.”

This is so mawkish that I choke up trying to answer it again.

“Can you ask it another question?” Julia asks.

“No, I cant.”

“Do you need a moment?”

I hold up my wrinkled hand, shielding my face, but Julia peeks around and sees my burning eyes.

“You don’t get it,” I say to Julia. “You didn’t love a man for fifty years, only for him to turn on you from beyond the grave.”

Julia’s face is stony. As she scribbles on her tablet, I realize I have given her another quote. I curse myself for ever agreeing to this interview.

“I see,” Julia says, still in that flat, clinical tone. “Do you feel like the Remembrance’s premise of giving folks like you access to your deceased loved ones was a way of preying on older folks? Especially older women who are much likelier to outlive their husbands?”

“Stop,” I say, waving her off with both hands, which makes my elbows hurt, “just stop. I don’t know. I don’t know what I know. I know I’m probably…I don’t know…going crazy. Don’t write that…losing my memory? No, not that either. I’m losing my grasp on some things I thought I knew.”

Julia says nothing and scribbles more notes.

“I never knew my husband to be anything but a caring, wonderful man. Sure, he got angry sometimes, and we yelled at each other more times than I can remember. But so does every married couple, especially as they get older and everything gets harder. I could have died knowing I lived a happy life with him, but this thing has planted a little seed of doubt. Was Irv really as angry and petty as this thing makes him? I don’t know. I wish I could have put my rose-colored memories into a nice little box and stuck them on the shelf where they belong. I’m not sure you’d understand.”

Julia finally looks up at me, and for the first time I sense her façade melting away. There is a pained look on her face, one which I know from my own days of staring into the mirror after Irv had gone.

“I’ve been around long enough to know when someone’s got something to get off their chest,” I say gently. “What’s wrong? We’ll go off-the-background…or whatever it is you say.”

“I actually do know what you mean,” Julia says. “My boyfriend and I had lived together for almost five years when he passed away.”

Somehow, throughout our conversation, I had developed a mental image of Julia as a too-smart-for-her-own-good overachiever who was off to some high-flying career with her equally overachieving boyfriend, but this revelation turns my perception completely around.

“I thought about getting him a Remembrance, and for a while I felt super conflicted and left-out when other people could speak with their dead relatives again.”

She sets her tablet down on the kitchen table. Blessedly, the Remembrance remains silent.

“When the devices first started getting hacked, I began to feel differently,” Julia continues. “That’s what got me started researching this story. I have debated with myself about whether to frame the piece around my own story or to focus on people like you who seem to have lost so much more. I miss my boyfriend tremendously, and I grieve often, but I still have my good memories. You’ve had your good memories of Irv soiled.”

We stare at each other, and in that mundane moment under the yellow lights of my kitchen, I feel a sense of communion with Julia. For the first time since Irv’s death, I feel I have connected with someone who understands what I am going through.

“Some people I’ve interviewed say that humans evolved our rose-colored glasses for a reason,” Julia says. I sense she is trying to restore her own decorum. “It gives us a feeling that we’ve accomplished something and drives us forward. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing—it just is. But the Remembrance has perverted that.”

“Here, Julia, I’ll give you another line you can use,” I say. “I bought this thing for less than I pay for a week’s groceries. It’s a cheap, shitty little thing that cons anyone who buys it into hearing a bastardized version of their loved ones and leaves so many loose strings to be pulled that it’s a wonder no one hacked into it sooner. And I’ll bet you the founders couldn’t give a damn, because everyone already paid for them—”

At the height of my diatribe, I forget to inhale and my dry throat spasms into a fit of coughing. My nurse runs to get water, and after a few minutes and a cool sip, the fit subsides.

I pause to take a breath. “Did you get all that?”

Julia smiles weakly, and nods.

I would have been happy if my day had ended there. Julia thanks me for the interview, and I take the Remembrance off the table, handling it gingerly as if it were explosive. My nurse wheels me back up the stairs, and I motor the power chair the rest of the way to my bedroom.

I place the black disc back on my dresser, wheel myself back to my corner, and stare quietly at it. It transfixes me, but not in the romantic way Irv once did.

My heart begins to race. I call my nurse with a small button by my bed and ask him to bring me some tea before he leaves for the night. It is winter, and it’s already getting dark outside.

I sip the gingery tea, which is supposed to calm my nerves. As I swirl the tea bag around absentmindedly, I notice that my hands are shaking. My doctor told me that Parkinson’s comes on slowly, oftentimes before you notice it. That stress and anxiety can make the symptoms worse.

Years ago, when I felt this way, Irv would come to the bedside with me and put a blanket around me. He would make me tea, but unlike the nurse whose job ends once I get up into bed, he would not leave.

“Is that better?” he would say.

I speak aloud to my empty bedroom. “I don’t feel any better.”

“Well whose fault is that, Doris?” the machine answers.

“Remember you used to say nice things to me, Irv? Remember that?”

“Don’t I still, love?” The voice becomes sweet and warm again.

“No, you don’t!”

“Dorie, what’s wrong?”

Sitting there years ago, Irv would ask me that in a quiet voice. He would flatten the blanket over my shoulders. I would tell him, of course, that nothing was wrong, thank him for asking, and tell him that I loved him.

“You-you-you’re wrong!” I spit. “You’re the devil. You’ve come to pay me back for all the bad things I’ve done!”

“Go to hell, Doris.”

It is the voice that unnerves me. It is, without a question, Irv’s voice. But when I picture it in my mind, it does not match him. The thing’s tone is disembodied, as if coming from a dream.

“I’d sooner go there than keep hearing all this from you!”

“You can’t tune me out forever, Doris. Sooner or later, you’ll have to listen.”

I remember the fight in a flash. It had been harsh and bitter, but afterwards, we met here in the bedroom, as we always did.

“I’m sorry,” I hear Irv say in my memory. “I’m so sorry, love.”

“You had better be sorry,” I say to the real world. “You had better be!”

“You’re the one who needs to apologize.”

“You’re not my real husband!”

“Oh, so I’m bargain-bin material now, am I?”

I shout, and in my moment of anger, I don’t know whether the thing has made a demon of my husband or if it is painting a picture with deadly accuracy of a monstrous man who I never truly knew. I reach out to grab it, but before I reach it I feel the world disappear from beneath me. My head knocks against something hard, and suddenly I am on the ground next to my dresser, with a pounding pain in my left temple. I see the black Remembrance over the lip of the dresser above me. I cannot stand, and I cannot reach it.

“Dorie, what’s wrong?”

The pounding in my head thunders in every bone above my neck. I clench my eyes shut. I twist my shoulder into a position I haven’t reached in years, and touch the back of my neck.

“Dorie, what’s wrong?”

I feel the thin, silvery chain, and with a breathless stretching effort that seems to take minutes, I unthread it from around my collar. The little black chip is cold and hard. I summon all the strength I have left into my arthritic hands, and I squeeze.


EDITOR’S NOTE: We published this story a month before Amazon announced a new feature that would allow Echo and Alexa-enabled devices to speak in a dead relative’s voice. The author of this story, John Perilli, wrote an article published by Electric Literature about the eerie experience of seeing his fiction become real and how it impacted him as a writer. We highly recommend reading it. —Alin

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

In this issue of The Dread Machine, you’ll visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show. Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

Visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show.

Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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It Is the Voice That Unnerves Me

Dorie's memory of her deceased husband is being tainted by his Remembrance, a device that simulates his personality.

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