Night and Day

Tibby zaps awake from her evening nap at seven o’clock, just like any other day.

She stretches her joints and takes eleven steps forward. On the tenth, she stumbles into a chair. Madam must have moved the chair there this morning. That’s no problem; Tibby pulls it out of the way. One more step, and— 

Her forehead slams into a door. 

Tibby takes a half-step back. Then, she carefully turns the knob and enters the kitchen. 

At last, she reaches the coffee machine. Tap. Tap. Tap. A long beep. The hot liquid streams into a mug Tibby has ready in her hand. When the mug feels heavy enough—precisely eighteen ounces—she punches the off button. 

“Madam Mendoza,” Tibby calls outside her bedroom door. “Your coffee is ready. I’ve placed it on the kitchen counter.”

Silence.

How odd. 

Madam usually replies with a “thank you.” On groggy Monday nights after a long day of work, Madam might grunt a hazy “thanks” instead. Tibby has never been greeted with mere silence. But it’s not her place to question it.

Madam Mendoza always requests dinner at 7:48 p.m.: enough time for her to change out of her work clothes, shower, dry her hair, and finish her cup of coffee, not enough time for her to linger too long on social media.

Tonight is steak night. Tibby takes out a slab of strip steak. Is it marinated? Yes, she marinated it last night. Good, that means no extra work for her tonight. The frying pan is on the second shelf to the right. She turns on the electric stove. Lightly drizzle olive oil onto the pan, she recalls. Roll the pan around so the oil spreads out evenly. Place the steak on the pan, wait three hundred and twenty-nine seconds before flipping it, and repeat.

The meat hisses when it touches the pan. 

As she waits, Tibby prepares the table. Madam Mendoza only eats steak on the round, gray plates. Tibby learned that the hard way after Madam scolded her for using a white plate once. The fork goes on the left, the knife on the right. Which knife did Madam ask for last week? Not the regular knife. Not the butter knife either. Tibby selects the sharp knife with the wooden handle. The handle needs to point toward the bottom of the table, not the side, Tibby reminds herself. 

She hates disappointing Madam.

The three hundred and twenty-nine seconds are up. Grabbing one of the metal tongs dangling from the oven handle, Tibby uses the tongs to hold onto the edges of the meat. She turns her wrist. 

The steak slides out of the tongs’ grip. 

She tries again. But the steak is no longer at the center of the pan. Oh dear. Tibby hasn’t been instructed on what to do in this situation. 

“Madam?” Tibby asks. “Can you help me?”

Silence greets her question. Maybe Tibby should just try the same action, but at a different location—

It works. The steak flips over, and she hears the familiar sizzle. 

Hot oil shoots out at her, splattering across her face.

She gently wipes off the oil with a cleaning cloth. While she waits for the other side of the steak to cook, Tibby boils a pot of water. Eight baby carrots, a handful of spinach, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. “Don’t overdo it,” Madam told her a few weeks ago as she watched Tibby prepare vegetables. “Just boil them or something. As long as there’s enough so my doctor doesn’t get on my case about it.” Madam Mendoza never clarified how many vegetables were “enough,” so Tibby simply took a guess. She has been serving her this amount every day, and Madam has never complained, so it must have been a good guess. 

The steak is ready. Tibby slides the slab of beef onto the round, gray plate. Three clockwise stirs, and the vegetables are ready too. She scoops the floating vegetables and dumps them in a pile next to the steak. “Madam? I’ve placed your dinner on the table.”

Again, no response.

Tibby doesn’t know what to do. Is silence good? Is it bad? She’s never faced this response before. Maybe Madam has chosen to stay silent today. Tomorrow, Tibby will ask her about this behavior. 

8:16 p.m. Time for her to clean Madam’s room, so Madam can return to and relax in a spotless room after dinner. Tibby taps a button on her right arm. Her shoes whirl to life. The sharp bristles of the vacuum kiss the floor in speedy circles. She makes way across the room in a snake-like pattern: forward, turn, turn, forward, repeat. Every square inch of the floor must be vacuumed at least twice. 

Another tap. Microfiber cleaning cloths and sponges spring out from her left arm. She dusts the bed frame, then the desk. The surface of Madam Mendoza’s desk is empty—no laptop, no scattered post-it notes, no coffee mug. Another odd occurrence, but it does make Tibby’s job easier.  

She spreads her hands on the bed, preparing to make the bed. The sheets are taut and neatly tucked under the mattress. The pillows are already fat and fluffed. If Tibby could frown right now, she would. 

Perhaps Madam had wanted to try something new and had time to make her bed this morning.

At 9 p.m., Madam Mendoza always watches the nighttime news. Tibby needs to set up the TV for her. Where is the remote? Good, it’s still in the remote control box. Tibby presses the large button on the top left corner, and jumbled static springs to life.

“Tonight, we bring you a more somber piece of news. A terrible string of accidents happened on Highway 88 over two hours ago. According to fire officials and the state highway patrol, the ongoing snow storm had caused a major, nine-vehicle collision. At least two trucks and seven other vehicles were involved in a crash around 6:30 p.m….” 

The house telephone rings. It shakes and dances and jitters across the coffee table. 

Unless she orders otherwise, Madam Mendoza prefers to pick up the phone herself. Tibby departs for her next duty, now that Madam is busy watching television: clearing the dinner table. Tibby gathers the plate and utensils; the plate feels heavier than usual. She dumps the remaining food into the garbage bin with a loud plonk. Tibby reaches for the sponge and turns on the faucet.

The rings echo and fade, and the phone enters voicemail. “Kelly,” a woman wails. Her high-pitched voice sounds familiar, but Tibby needs another second to match it—oh! It’s the Madam’s sister. “I’m watching the news right now. I know you usually take Highway 88 back home, please tell me you’re okay. Can you please pick up the phone?” 

“…Both directions on Highway 88 are closed tonight and will remain closed for all of tomorrow…”

“I—I can’t get through to your cell phone—” A sob and a hiccup. “When you hear this voicemail, please call me as soon as possible. Or tell TB-34 to send me a message if you’re too tired. Please, Kelly. Please tell me you’re okay.” 

A long beep. 

Then, silence. 

Again.

Tibby tilts the plate, and water splashes everywhere. She hastily adjusts the plate’s angle. 

A single droplet has landed on her spray-painted eye, streaming down her face.

The clock ticks 9:15 p.m. She finishes cleaning and turns off the faucet. Tibby walks down the stairs and into the basement.

On the floor above, the television screen illuminates the living room in a phantom blue glow. “We have received an update—we are saddened to hear that the Highway 88 accident has resulted in thirteen injuries and five casualties…”

Tibby tucks her limbs in and squeezes into her charging cube. It’s time for her to sleep.

Just like any other day.

Authors

Catherine Yeo
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review

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