Alarm

Northrup was going through his old files when he came across the folder that his mom had put together many years before. It was full of newspaper clippings about him and the machine that he’d invented. Most of them were from the weekly local paper of the small town that she’d been living in, but there were also a few from larger daily newspapers as well. Looking through the articles, he realized that, at least for some of them, she must have had to go searching, since they weren’t from papers that she’d have even subscribed to.

It had been twenty years earlier that Northrup had invented a kind of “life alarm.” The machine had been very popular for a few years. How it worked was that you entered your goals, and then you entered your actions as you went about daily life. If the machine saw that you were getting off track and doing things that wouldn’t help you get to your destination, it let you know. Unlike a standard alarm clock, it didn’t beep at you, but instead, it gently reminded you of where you were actually trying to get to.

Northrup had hired some voice actors with English accents to read his script for the alarm. He felt that an English accent would make you pay attention and that it connoted rational thought to North Americans. However, it wasn’t as judgmental as a standard American or Canadian accent. He knew that there were some people who would vehemently disagree with this choice, but he felt that, on average, he was right.

In spite of its initial popularity, it wasn’t long before the machine started to cause some controversy. The troubles culminated in Northrup being sued over one young man’s goals. An aunt took him to court because her nephew had entered that he wanted to get as high as possible. Whenever he wasn’t stoned, the alarm would gently chide him, and encourage him to smoke something or take a pill. They eventually had to forcibly separate him from the machine before they could get him into rehab. The young man got himself straightened out eventually, but he became very critical of the machine, blaming it, in part, for his problems with substance abuse.

In the end, the judge found that Northrup couldn’t be held responsible for the goals that people punched into his alarm. However, even though he won the court case, the machine quickly lost popularity. It wasn’t long before no store would sell it, and Northrup faced bankruptcy. Soon no more machines were being made.

He continued working on the machine, nonetheless. He hoped that he could fix some of the flaws that led to the court case. However, he found the problems insurmountable, and wanted to just put the whole thing behind him. He’d grown sick of the alarm, and he soon stopped even trying to fix it. The machine became nothing more than an idea when Northrup scrapped the last prototype. He was hoping that he’d never hear any more about it.

However, the alarm had been popular for long enough to spur quite a few articles. His mother had carefully clipped and stored as many as she could find. Northrup himself hadn’t bothered to keep more than a few of them, and he’d gotten rid of even those few. At the same time as he’d junked the prototype, he’d burned the articles, wishing he’d never even imagined the machine in the first place. As a result, other than the articles that his mother had kept, there was no evidence left of the success that Northrup and his invention had enjoyed.

His mother had died several years before. It should have been old age that got her, but it was a car accident instead. Her car had been hit while she was pulling out of her driveway onto a busy street. A younger person in a newer car would have been all right, but she was in her eighties and the car was too old to have effective air bags. So she held on for a little while, but after a few days, she died of her injuries.

Northrup was devastated, but he wasn’t sure that he was devastated enough. Even in his relationship with his mother, the alarm had taken its toll. Right up until the end, she had continued to insist on his brilliance, and that had made Northrup angry. One utterly failed invention, and she would not let go of the belief that he was a genius. At the time, he’d been working in a shoe store. He kind of liked it, and wondered why he’d tried for anything else.

His mother wasn’t satisfied with it, however. She kept forwarding him job offers to teach in Engineering departments. He’d told her many times that universities didn’t hire failed inventors with a Bachelor’s degree to teach courses, but she wouldn’t listen.

By the time he found the articles, he was still at the shoe store, but he had become the manager at least. Most of his staff were too young to know about his past, and those that were old enough to remember were also too smart to bring it up. Since he wasn’t serving the public very much, it was only very rarely that anyone figured out who he was. Or at least, it was very rare that anyone said anything.

Looking through the articles, most of them described him as a visionary of some sort. His mother hadn’t kept the later articles that described him as deluded or arrogant or other unpleasant things. She didn’t like to think of him that way, so she had just willfully ignored what people actually thought of him by that time.

He found himself angered by the articles. If there had been at least some of the negative articles as well as the glowing ones, he might have found the experience less irritating. Though maybe it wouldn’t have. It wasn’t great reading that he was delusional any more than reading about his genius. As he stood in his living room, he thought about taking them out to the backyard and burning them like he’d burnt the others.

However, he soon calmed down. Besides the articles, his mother had kept a box of his reports cards and his awards. The report cards portrayed Northrup as a budding genius, like the articles had. He always seemed to get really good marks, and his teachers gushed about his natural abilities and talent.

So instead of burning them, he placed the folder full of articles into the same box with the report cards. He put it to one side, determined that when he started packing everything back up, it would go on the bottom. He’d be able to forget about it without having to actually get rid of it.

The folder was hers and even though it was about him, he didn’t feel right about destroying it. She had been deluded about him right until the end, and no matter how much he might want to, he couldn’t change her mind now. The delusion was hers, and he didn’t feel he had the right to wreck it even after she was dead.

 

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