by Sunset Combs
A month after he died, a box arrived on my doorstep. Blue sides, chrome top, glinting in the afternoon sun and blinding me. I let it.
“Sign here,” a man said, dressed in his all-blue shipment suit, sleeves rolled up, a forearm tattoo of Jesus on the cross poking out. Jesus had knobby knees. “They just need to know you received it,” he explained, glancing around at my manicured street and the supposed riffraff that might steal my shiny package. I took his pen and signed an X on the line. “And here, please, ma’am. This is so they can check in to see how your shipment is coming along.” I nodded. I knew the gist—customer service, happy buyers, come back for more, and more, and more. I signed another X. Two cartoon dead eyes.
“The Air I Breathe Corp. appreciates your participation, ma’am. Have a wonderful day.” And he was off, speeding away in his chrome shipment truck: a UFO on wheels, blinding the people on the road behind him. But it didn’t matter, his destination was more important than theirs. He was off to the bereaved people sick with loss. The people who hadn’t actually believed the rumors about this thing called death. Shock. How could it do this? Where did it come from? They were too young.
Martha James from down the street had gotten her very own shiny package after her father died. I went to the funeral out of politeness. I had always waved at her and her father when I saw them walking their dogs—I felt obligated. Before he was launched, Martha had given a PowerPoint presentation on the man, laser pointer in hand. Showing a picture of him in his favorite recliner, she had cried about how he was too young. He was sixty-eight. She had forgotten that death before you’re ready only happens to other people. Not to me. Not to Martha James’ twenty-four going on sixty-eight-year-old father.
I dragged the thing inside, huffing pitifully.
“Mom! Aunt Peaches needs help!” Henry yelled.
I stood up and pushed my hair back, hands planted on my hips as I took a breath. “I’m fine, Henry,” I got out. He had started calling me Aunt Peaches three years prior because he and I would go outside, play cards, and eat peaches, then throw the pits off the porch and into the yard. We were still waiting for our peach tree to grow, though we didn’t have the highest hopes. I gritted my teeth and pulled. Henry came to the front of the house to watch me, the box reaching his chest.
“What is that?” he questioned, popsicle juice on his open mouth. His mom came running from the shower, a towel around her and a trail of water droplets behind her. A rushing rain cloud.
“Huh. It actually came,” Amy said, as if she hadn’t believed the pamphlet. All three of us surrounded the box like we were waiting for it to do something other than be a box. Like it was a ringleader, and we were the eager circusgoers. After a moment, the three of us pushed it into the living room: Henry with his string bean arms, his mother with one hand on the package and one keeping her towel up, and me doing all the work.
“What is it?” Henry asked again but Amy and I didn’t say anything. Instead, I searched on the crowded coffee table for the pamphlet I hadn’t actually looked all the way through. Bills, bills, coupons (two for one on dryer sheets), bills . . . pamphlet.
From the moment I received the pamphlet, I knew that my sister wanted to read through it, highlighter in hand. But I had asked her not to. I kept telling her I needed a little more time, just a tiny bit more and then we could both read it, I swear. But now time was up. The shot of a gun. Go. But we had forgotten our running shoes. I flipped through it until I found a picture of the box. A picture book for death and mourning. They made sure the booklet was colorful and lacking big words, low in difficulty—a widow has no strength to read. A bold arrow pointed toward a button, the drawn man beside the box smiling excitedly and pushing it. They had drawn his eyes lopsided. The only words on the page were small, found below the picture:
*Once released, your robot cannot be returned.
“I guess there’s a button . . .” On the back of the box, near the bottom right corner was a small white button, BREATHE engraved above it. But I couldn’t.
“Here goes nothing,” I mumbled, pressing the button firmly just as the lopsided man prompted me to.
I called it. Nothing happened. Henry couldn’t handle the aching seconds. He bounced in place with curiosity, egging it on. Come on, come on. I triple, quadruple dog dare you. And, at last . . . breath. The chrome top lifted with a puff of compressed air, the blue sides falling open and hitting the rug with a muted thud. A mechanic square wheeled forward, gears and belts and bolts all blue and chrome and compressed. But then it grew. The square got taller, grew arms and a head. It stood a few inches shorter than me, arms dangling almost to the ground, five metal fingers on two metal hands. Two chrome plates slid open on its blue, oval head, revealing two hazel eyes. My heart faltered and then throbbed, as though I had dived to the bottom of a pool and the surface was too far away for me to sufficiently hold my precious breath. A whole-body heartbeat. Loud, hard, all over. Trying not to drown.
“Hello.” It spoke without an opening mouth.
They were Peter’s eyes.
“What?” Amy asked, seeing my reaction. “Jemma, what?” She came to my side, getting close to my face so she could search. She liked to believe that we had some sort of Supernatural Sister Connection. She’d call me sometimes in the middle of the night, telling me she’d had a feeling. Sometimes she’d show up where I was having lunch without asking me where I was going. She claimed coincidence as power, and I let her. I used to believe her when we were young.
“The eyes,” I whispered, unable to look away. Amy swiveled, staring closely at the robot’s face instead of my own. He looked back at her, expressionless. Henry was behind it, staring closely at the mechanics and trying hard not to poke at them.
“Oh my god!” Amy nearly lost her towel. “This is unbelievable. Unbelievable. And they say they’re trying to help you grieve? You have got to be kidding me. Un-be-liev-a-ble.” By then she had stomped her way to the kitchen to find her phone. I didn’t need a Supernatural Sister Connection to feel the outrage flowing from her pores, from the loud breaths coming from her nose because her lips were so tightly pursed. “Henry!” she called, “Please go upstairs.” She didn’t want him to hear her curse. He sighed, giving me a look.
“We get a robot and I have to leave,” he huffed, and the robot turned, making both of us jump in surprise.
“Goodbye, Henry,” he said, never blinking, Peter’s eyes looking at everyone from a metal carcass. Henry just stared. I could tell by the way he was grabbing the ends of his t-shirt that he was frightened, but he wouldn’t really let it show. This was the same kid that looked into the eyes of spiders and lived to tell me and the entire third grade class about it. My house had been spider-free ever since he and his mother had come to stay with me for a few weeks. Amy, born six years before me, had been hired as my caretaker at my birth. Low wage, long hours. She was employee of the month every month, despite the conditions. They were the only family left to attend to me when I broke, to bring a dustpan and open the blinds. Henry didn’t know what had happened. He still peeked in the back of the closets to see if Peter was hiding around. Amy knew, and she had a hard time admitting that I was the bite that was more than she could chew. She would never admit to this. Instead, she rushed from the shower at a yell, shampoo on her ears. Instead, she tucked in me and Henry and woke up early to make us breakfast.
Henry hesitated, unsure of how to respond. He did not know robot etiquette. He decided on a salute and quickly ran upstairs so he wouldn’t hear his mother say damn, maybe hell—it all depended on the person’s response on the other end of the phone.
The robot looked back at me. My heart had somewhat righted itself by then or at least numbed to the point where I couldn’t notice its beating. But the rest of my body had not fully recuperated—my toes and temples still pulsed. We stood there looking at each other. I waited for him to recognize me. I waited to recognize him . . . it . . . him. I admired the green slits in between the brown, the roundness of the pupil, the whiteness of the corneas—they looked more moisturized in death than they had in life. They had once resided in sunken sockets, a slightly crooked nose between them, dark brows above them, lashes twice the length of mine around them. I could hear myself, a whisper from the past ringing in my ears: “Your eyes remind me of the morning. The early morning when the sky is gray, and the sun is stuck somewhere in the clouds. They make me want to stay in bed. They’re warm, soft, cozy.”
What were they now?
“You must be out of your damn mind!” I heard Amy yell in the kitchen, and so did Henry upstairs. I peeked around the wall separating the living room from the kitchen. She was still in her towel, a blur of purple with bleach stains, pacing the length of my kitchen like she was being timed. Faster, faster. Go for the gold! ”What in the hell could you possibly be thinking?!” Uh, oh. Hell.
“Is the lady okay?” the robot spoke again, calling my eyes back to him. His voice was void of life and Peter. I had stared into those eyes countless nights, countless mornings, countless hours. I wished at that moment that I had counted them. Tally marks on a wall. I wanted to hold out every counted second in shaking, cupped hands, yelling, “Here, here. Look! No time wasted. No time lost. Look at all I had!”
I nodded, my throat tight. I was unsure, sweat forming on the back of my neck, fingers twitching. He was so still. “Jemma, I presume?” he asked, lifting a too-long arm and offering me his hand. I swallowed, approaching him like a Caution: Wet Floor sign. Scared of slipping. I lifted my hand in slow motion. His hand was cold and smooth around mine, his fingers long and holding onto me lightly.
“It’s a pleasure.” Our hands moved up, down, up, down, stopped. We didn’t let go.
“Yeah . . . a pleasure,” I replied. My voice tasted foreign in my mouth like I had hung it up on a coat rack and, in a hurry to leave, picked up the wrong one. Black spots floated elegantly in the corners of my vision, singing a lullaby only my heavy eyelids could hear. My body felt nonexistent. I stood there, only a hand (still latched onto a robots) and a floating, spinning head that held a stranger’s voice on its tongue.
“Well, you better! Or I will . . .” I called Amy’s name to try and stop her, but she didn’t hear me.
“Would you like me to fetch her?” he asked.
“N-No. No, that’s okay. I’ll, uh, I’ll go.” He released my hand and as I walked, almost afraid to look away from those tea leave eyes, I noticed that I missed the coolness.
I walked into the kitchen, unable to feel my feet on the floor. “Amy,” I said again, and this time, she heard me. She looked up at me, exasperated, confused, frightened. “It’s okay,” I said. The look in my eyes was like a flame to wax. All those expressions melted from her face, leaving one thing in their place: disbelief. Her eyes met mine and what she saw there extinguished her anger. She swallowed her charred complaints. We looked at one another in a beat of silence. The circus had started. “It’s okay,” I repeated.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Yes, mhmm. I am so sorry to disturb you. It seems there’s no problem,” a humorless laugh, “and have a wonderful day.” And she put her phone on the counter. Without questioning me, she opened her eyes and went upstairs to get dressed. The robot rolled into the kitchen when she was gone, an electric hum his only sound of existence.
“I should thank you,” he said, but it sounded like a question.
I shook my head. “You don’t need to thank me. I should be thanking you.” His head tilted the tiniest bit on his short, silver neck, looking at me with those eyes, asking what for; but I couldn’t answer. I could not explain the pulsing feeling inside of me—how the dirt must feel when a seed is just about to sprout. There was just something inside of me, something lodged in my chest, chanting, “A part of him. A part of him. A part of him.”
It all started after Amy and Henry left my house to go back to theirs, going back to a husband and father who waited fondly. The man who Amy thought should stay home so as not to remind me of the man I had once lived with and loved and lost. Actually, it started before that, when I pressed that white button and saw hazel once again. Or maybe before that, when I signed my X’s on the lines as I was told. Or perhaps even before that, when I agreed to have Peter sent up in that shuttle, his corpse stacked on top of others like paperwork.
Yeah, that sounds about right.
The Air I Breathe™ program started up expectantly, in the most unexpected way—around the same time Henry started calling me Aunt Peaches. The population kept climbing and the obituary of my tiny dome town’s online bulletin started taking up eighteen pages, then twenty-five, then forty. Cemeteries were stacking graves on top of each other, so people opted for cremation. They spread the ashes in the most charming of forests, on the banks of the most tranquil rivers. But it got to a point where the soil was tuckered out. Trees started dying—wilted, sagging, gray. And we didn’t have many trees to spare since most of them had been hacked up in order to build the community pool, one beneath the dome that surrounded my town and emitted false sunlight when the toxic rain fell in the real world around as. We never had to worry about the weather.
The commercial came on one night and Peter and I got quiet, drawn into the blue-suited men and the towering space shuttle. Right before our eyes, it launched, and a woman standing on the ground watching it was starstruck. Privileged. She waved goodbye. A scientist with a round nose and dyed hair explained it all to us, his eyes distant and his voice stiff with teleprompter emotion. “After the people we love die, The Air I Breathe Corp. will take them into space and release their bodies into the atmosphere.” (Release, not catapult them so that they would actually burn; not throwing them into the dark pits of space for the Martians to kidnap). “They will float peacefully until they have transformed to ashes.” (Float, not flail; no limbs would be detached. Transformed, not broken, tattered, and melted). “Then the trees can grow, the cemeteries won’t overflow, and the people we love will be with us always—in the air we breathe.” TM. Trademarked air. Trademarked death. The woman from the beginning of the commercial came back on the screen and took in a long, big, sweet breath . . . and smiled.
At first, it was poetic. A Peter inhale, a Peter exhale. A breeze through my hair was actually Peter’s long, thin fingers. Was actually a whisper hello or goodnight or I love you. Was him. How could I be alone if he was everywhere? He was gone so fast that I couldn’t say no. That’s how it was described to me, anyway—fast, too quick to feel pain. I tried to explain to the professionals, the ones in charge. I tried to say to them, “You don’t know what he felt,” but they knew everything. They created a way to rid of grief, so who was I to question them? The slogan had been stuck in the back of my head since the moment I saw that inhale and that smile. I had made a joke at the time, some sarcastic remark, but I couldn’t ignore the tightening in my chest at such an oath. They were selling peace to the people who had forgotten the feeling. How could I say no? Accidents create slits in peace, tiny holes that let it seep out and escape.
The robots didn’t come until later—an afterthought. Someone to pick up the responsibilities the deceased left behind. Sweep, cook, wash the dishes. A mint on your pillow for all you’ve been through. The program started in a select number of small domes and then it grew. A fad. Oh my god, your husband’s body is, like, in the air? I’ve gotta do that for my dog. A pet program soon followed. Still, the help sounded nice. A set of extra hands. Company. I was never the best cook anyway, not alone. Peter was the patient one; the planner.
I didn’t get to stand by the shuttle like the woman in the commercial. I didn’t get to wave or inhale. Instead, they sent me a video after the shuttle had returned safely. The process had gotten so polished (so chrome) that it all took less than a month. For all of my savings. I watched it once, the video. A man in a spacesuit waved to the camera, and then up, up, and away! A Bach song I had chosen from a list they sent me was playing, getting louder the higher the shuttle flew.
They didn’t show the part where they scooped out his eyeballs, snip, snipped them accordingly, washed them (plop), polished them (squeak), and left Peter with two gaping holes. It ended with a black screen and white, fancy lettering: Peter Calloway. The Air You Breathe.
The night after I watched the video, I had a dream I was standing in my kitchen in the middle of the night. I had heard a noise that sounded vaguely like a faucet and walked blindly toward it, assuming Peter was getting a glass of water. His death did not occur to me in dreams. I called out his name, entering the dark kitchen and finding it empty. The noise came again from behind me, only now that I had gotten closer it sounded less like water and more like electric fuzz. I turned.
“Oh, there you are,” I said, smiling softly.
There Peter stood, his long torso and broad shoulders. Only he wasn’t skin and bones like me—he was made up of space. Not human, but celestial. A walking, long torso-ed, broad shouldered galaxy. Purples and blues and blacks—so deeply black it wasn’t the black I’d always known—swirled. Brilliant, silver stars sat inside of him. He was humming. He was beautiful. I didn’t comment on his lack of blood and guts.
“Why don’t you come to bed?” I asked, moving forward to grab his hand. Together, we walked back to our bedroom. Me and the Callow Way galaxy.
Since then, I couldn’t sleep.
When Henry and Amy left, they left the robot and I alone, in a house now open to every spider in town. I had started calling my robot George, for I choked on the name Peter. George vacuumed every day at three o’clock in the afternoon and made me waffles for dinner with extra whipped cream. While he was cutting the grass one day, his body serving as the lawnmower, I saw Martha James for the first time since the funeral. She walked by with her dogs, her robot wheeling by her side and holding the leashes. I waved, they stopped. Our robots locked human eyes. They introduced themselves.
“I’m George. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Martin. Nice to meet you.”
It was worse when we went to the grocery store in the center of the dome. Robots were obsessed with making pleasantries. George introduced himself to every robot around. Some came with stiff and styled chrome hair and matching eyelashes. All around me—blue eyes, brown eyes, green. None that warm hazel. George logged all my grocery items into the computer, I inserted the card, he placed them in the trunk. Sometimes I let him drive. Amid shopping and waffles, a survey appeared on my computer, asking about George’s service. Check, check. Exemplary. Emails with subject lines reading Upgrades to come! sat unread in my inbox. I wasn’t interested; my current model was doing just fine. He knew how I liked my eggs and every word in every dictionary.
One night while I was lying in bed, George came in to tell me goodnight before he washed the carpets quietly, or perhaps folded himself up and rolled back into his box that was beside the front door like a dog cage. I was dreading the wide-eyed night ahead of me, the seed of a headache nestled in my left temple. The night would water it soon enough. A migraine with leaves. He asked me if I was okay, with his computer voice and his vocabulary from twentieth-century Britain. In that moment, a feeling crept over me. A shadow, a wave, a possession. It was the breathless, lurking feeling of loneliness. I was caught up in remembering. Mourning turns the brain into a scrapbook. Mourning had converted me from Jemma to Ms. Picture Thinking. Ms. because I had divorced logical thinking.
“George?” I asked, before he could leave. I smiled at the name that so suited him now. He turned his head back to me. Your wish is my command. Literally, I’m programmed that way. “Would you come here?” He obliged in an instant.
“What is it, Jemma?”
“Would you lay down with me, just for a moment?” I asked, watching him curiously. I vaguely expected nervousness, uncertainty, and hesitation—all those human reactions. But, of course, none of them came. Using his long arms, he effortlessly lifted himself onto Peter’s side of the bed, and, drawing the blanket to my chin, I turned to face him. Hazel and warm. My heart skipped, trotted, stumbled.
“Would you . . .” I paused, ignoring the burning in my face. “Would you rub my temples?” I lifted my hands and rubbed my forehead, showing him how. “Like this?” Like Peter used to.
“Another headache?” he inquired and replaced my hands with his own. The metal felt refreshing on my clammy skin. His fingers rotated slowly, careful not to harm me. A man-made guardian angel with wheels. His maker a round-nosed, distant-eyed millionaire. “Would you perhaps enjoy hearing a story?” he asked, and I nodded. A migraine with beautiful, beautiful leaves.
From his computer brain, he told me the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, one I’d heard before. Orpheus loves Eurydice. Eurydice dies. Orpheus goes to get her from the Underworld. One condition: don’t look back. He does. She’s gone. The end. I couldn’t help but picture myself in a toga and sandals, singing to the gods.
“I think it is a sweet thing that he does, don’t you?” George asked.
“Killing her?” I joked. He laughed. It sounded like when you asked a computer how to pronounce Ha-Ha.
“Killing her with love,” he explained. “Not everyone is so lucky.”
Amy and Henry came to visit often, and Amy could see what was happening. She’d ask me things like if I was going back to work. “Nah,” I’d always say, and she’d pretend not to be frustrated. Then she’d ask me things like how I was going to pay all those bills piling up on my coffee table. “I get two for one on dryer sheets,” I’d say with a shrug. She’d pretend not to be annoyed.
“Aunt Peaches,” Henry asked me on one of their visits. “Do you have a pit?”
We chewed noisily, juice dripping between our fingers. Mourning reverts you back to childhood. Currently, Amy was in the kitchen making us grilled cheese sandwiches. The backdoor was open, and her ear was extended toward us to listen. George was standing in the small square of backyard waiting to catch our peach pits and plant them, sunlight glinting off his head. Two holes in the ground waited patiently. It was the first time anyone in my town had attempted to plant something so prominent in years.
“Yeah, I think I do,” I told him. “We all have pits.” Souls. Glowing balls of light. Being. Something I’d never put much thought into until I had to. Until I had a broken heart and a closet full of men’s clothing that would never again see the light of day. Amy appeared, handed us our sandwiches, and sat beside Henry.
“Does George have a pit?” Henry asked. Childhood questions that I had too. Amy’s eyes latched onto me like a starved predator. She gnashed her teeth and fangs, salivating wildly while she waited for me to answer.
Amy faltered, and her eyes got sad—predator turned prey. She looked at her grilled cheese for answers. What was she to do? She had forgotten that death before you’re ready only happened to people she didn’t feel obligated to care for. Not to the people she loved. I threw my pit and George caught it flawlessly. Henry clapped and threw his. Ten out of ten, nailed the landing.
Amy looked at me and saw the brinks of madness. Insanity’s edges. She saw a wound: open, gushing, unable to heal. I didn’t ask them back after that and when Amy asked if I needed time alone, I said yes. She said that it might do me some good, but we both knew she didn’t believe that. I half expected to catch her outside of my house with binoculars, but she didn’t show. She sent me messages stating that Henry missed me, and oh yeah, she missed me too. I ignored the longing. It didn’t grow leaves.
I spent my time with George. Many afternoons passed with me beside him on my sofa or the back porch or the square downtown overflowing with chrome, looking into those tea leave eyes, wondering if somehow—somehow—they had extracted Peter’s soul and placed it in George as well. If maybe—just maybe—there was a glowing ball of being inside of him named Peter. If possibly—possibly—he hadn’t really left me, after all.
I started dressing him in Peter’s shirts and coats, despite the seventy-degree weather. He didn’t complain—he lacked the necessities to care. We went to the new pool and he sat beside me in a lawn chair, holding my towel and getting me sweet teas. Somehow, I’d end up holding his hand. A happy accident—the opposite of the kind I knew. The smell of metal and oil instantly made me smile, like fresh-cut grass or Peter’s shampoo. I told him memories and when I asked him to, he repeated them back to me. And a whisper from the past whisked me into a perfect night’s sleep.
The two peach trees had bloomed and grown to the middle of my shin. People passing by my house slowed down to get a better look at them, to gaze at the plants George tended to daily. Only suicidal weeds dared to grow beside them. I sent Amy pictures to show Henry and ignored the replies that said he wanted to see them in person.
One night after admiring the trees, while George and I were watching TV, a commercial came on. Men in blue suits worked mercilessly in a white lab. The same scientist came on the screen only there was something different about him. His skin looked young and clear, his nose a little smaller, his eyes a little bigger but just as distant. When his mouth moved to speak, the motion was less human and more puppet. I pictured a puppeteer below him, their arm in the back of his lab coat, their hand moving his lips to make words. Hey there, kids!
“The Air I Breathe Corp. is a company for the people. We want to do everything we can to provide for you, and the world, in your hardest moments. That is why we are working nonstop to improve our program and get you those upgrades. You deserve only the best.” That was his cue. The real scientist. The human one. The living, breathing man responsible for me and the world—all the bereaved people sick with loss. He stood beside the robot version of himself, the resemblance making my eyes twitch between them. George and I were silent. I wondered if he was aware of the difference in my heartbeat; I wondered if he could even feel it through my hand; I wondered if he could feel what I felt in that moment, in the moments that had passed. Who are you? I wondered.
The scientist continued, “We have been working on our latest addition and we think it’s time we shared it with you all. Our promise still stands, it is only upgraded. They will always be with you.” Their number and website flashed on the screen. Their phones rang once for every dollar they had made. Someone’s hand latched onto the person they wanted to never ever, to please not leave them and the other latched onto the phone.
I told George I needed some air. He joked how he didn’t and picked up our plates to take them to the kitchen and wash. “Jemma,” he called as I grabbed the doorknob. I turned to him, to George, wearing my dead husband’s burgundy long sleeve shirt. The one with the buttons and the ink stain we could never get out. The one he’d wear at his desk, rubbing those eyes, cracking his neck. The one I would feel beneath my fingertips as I ran my hands along his shoulders. My fingers ached to feel it, to feel the living warmth beneath the cotton. I swallowed. I choked.
“Yes?” I whispered.
“It is a lovely program, is it not?” he said, holding the plate I’d eaten off of, my chewed remains. “I am glad to have met you, and I wouldn’t have without them.”
I opened the front door and stepped into the night air without reply, my lungs gripping at it with the last of their strength, begging it for forgiveness. I stumbled down the steps, drunk without liquor. Dying without disease. I sat on the bottom step, a hand on my forehead, a face stuck in my head like a song. Melancholy, soft, on a loop. It hummed. It was beautiful. My fingers shook like they craved the cigarettes I didn’t smoke. They craved something. Something.
I looked up at the stars, my chest feeling raw. The air felt too stiff, not fresh, not real. I wished for guidance from the stars like a ship at sea. I sat motionless until the lights of the houses around me turned off and I was left to feel alone, even with George lurking behind my front door.
Eventually, perhaps an hour later, I noticed a star moving. Not shooting, just moving—slowly. Then another followed. And another. I watched as, from the sky, a constellation stepped forth to greet me. The Calloway Constellation, my guide to land. A body made of stars, with broad shoulders and a long torso. “Peter,” I breathed, and I felt him sparkling in my lungs; I felt him shining in the reflection in my eyes. “There you are.” He stepped forward again, getting as close to me as the night sky would allow. A small, incredulous laugh escaped me, and I smiled up at him. “I’ve missed you.”
That moment, beneath the stars I had married, beneath a soul of fire and gas, I wondered for the first time if the stars above me were even real.
I returned to George soon enough and we slept beside each other for the last time. He told me to have sweet dreams and I said the same to him. But he couldn’t dream. He couldn’t dream. I couldn’t sleep, but when I opened my eyes in the morning, I was facing George, looking into his (not his) hazel eyes. My phone glowed, telling me I had missed a call from Amy at around midnight. I promised to call her back soon, hoping she would hear my promise like she used to tell me she could.
“Well, good morning, Jemma. Someone is up early.” He got off the bed and wheeled around to face me. “What would you like to have for breakfast?” I stroked George’s metal face, the place where his mouth would be. The upgraded version would be able to smile at me. Peter’s lips, the stubble beneath. All rubber. If Orpheus hadn’t looked back. But he did look back. He did. Eurydice faded for the second time, unable to ever return.
Finally, I spoke. “I think I’d like to check on the peach trees first if you don’t mind.” He didn’t. Mind over matter. No mind, no matter. I didn’t dress him.
I watched him water the trees—a machine without religion praying for something to grow. A machine. I went to the shed and picked up the shovel that sat collecting dust in the corner. As soon as I felt the wood handle in my hands, tears formed in my eyes. There was nothing I could do to stop them; nothing I could tell myself. I walked back to George. The day was unusually hot. Sweat on my shoulders, a stiffness in my legs. He wheeled around the trees and commented on their loveliness. The humble joy of the blossoming twigs. Programmed feelings. Programmed love.
“If I asked you to leave, George, what would you do?” My voice was drowning, my eyes blurred from lack of understanding. Questions like allergies making my nose run, my eyes water, my skin itch.
“Oh, Jemma, I could never leave you.” Programmed loyalty.
*Once released, your robot cannot be returned.
I lifted the shovel over my head. Inside of me, in my cracked open chest, lava spewed. Exploded. Bang. The shovel came down on his head with an echo. He turned, the water no longer streaming from his hand.
“Jemma? What is the matter?” he asked, with no hint of worry, alarm, threat. I hit him again, sucking in asthmatic breaths of loneliness. Loneliness with beautiful, beautiful leaves. The seed had been planted months ago when I stood in a room of work friends and distant relatives and whispered words called remembrance; when I uttered the sentences I had scrawled on a piece of paper, the words crooked and groggy. He will be missed. Mourning draws people to the obvious, to the plain. He will be missed, I said, not knowing the true meaning of the words.
The end of the shovel pierced George’s head and one chrome eyelid closed. One hanging hazel eye stared up at me, whispering in its last dying breath, “A part of him.” I let the shovel drop again. And again. Until I had nothing left. Until his voice box busted. Until he stopped saying my name, asking me what I needed, what I desired. Until I could no longer stand. Until my tears had mixed with my sweat and I tasted the salt of my skin.
I laid on the ground beside his jagged metal, his broken belts, his dangling gears. Sparks emerged from the wires in his head, popping sporadically. His wheels stayed intact, spinning slowly. Something beeped for a couple of hours and then, finally, stopped. Mechanical heartbeat. Programmed life. I laid there beside him, the sun shining in my eyes. I laid there beside him, sorry, scared, free.
I killed him with love. I laid there beside him. Not everyone is so lucky.