Good morning, Marple Township, it’s time for the weather. It’s going to be a warm seventy-two degrees in comparison to yesterday’s rainy fifties. Gonna be a sunny one!
I change into an old band t-shirt from my concert phase, jeans, and flip-flops and then trek down to the mailbox with my paid bills and notated documents for the lawyer, rivulets of water rising like tiny waves over the front of my flip flops and soaking my feet. I shut the front of the cobalt blue mailbox, flip the red flag, and turn back toward the house only to hear a tiny meow. I look down near the mailbox, hear another peeping meow, and then scour the shrubbery next to the mailbox until I find a small, bedraggled kitten. It has slicked down dark fur that is either its true color, or a thick layer of earth from where itâ€™s probably been rolling around on the ground. Large alien eyes that are still baby blue blink at me. I pick the kitten up. It’s smaller than my palm and, still mewing, reveals minuscule fangs and a rough little pink tongue.
â€œHow could anyone just leave you here?â€ I ask it. It mews, hardly more than a squeak, which tugs at something deep in my chest. I look over to the side, and see the compound wall of senior living in Florida, a retirement company. I certainly didn’t think that it could have come over from there. I breathe out hard against it but the tension is still there, an oppressive weight. I bite my lip. â€œWell, youâ€™re coming home with me, arenâ€™t you,â€ I say, holding it close to my chest, the dampness from its fur soaking into my t-shirt and cooling my skin. I check its sexâ€”girl, if you abide by that sort of thingâ€”and examine her with narrowed eyes. â€œMaybe Tara. Youâ€™re covered in dirt anyway, so itâ€™s fitting.â€ I wrinkle my nose. â€œI suppose a trip to the pet store is in order.â€
Have you heard on the news? Itâ€™s very tragic. There was a shooting at the Greenwood Forest Elementary School by the 22 year old son of one of the workers. What do you think happened there?
The pet store is large and bright and intimidating, and I want to lie down after ten minutes. Iâ€™ve never had a pet before, Madame never really liked animals. Well, thatâ€™s not fair, Madame just could never remember appropriate feeding times, including for herself, so it was nothing personal. That was my job.
Google informed me what I needed: a litter box, litter, scooper, food, bowls, toys, brush, a travel container, and nail clippers. I regret not researching further when I see the wholly excessive number of brands of kitten food to choose from. What kind of food would a kitten even like to eat? I inspect the pictures, and they all look like variations of brown little pebbles except for the wet food which looks like vomit. I seriously canâ€™t imagine a kitten wanting to eat that, but what do I know.
I finally pick the least questionable looking one that promises tooth health and roll up to the counter with my cart, stacking kitten paraphernalia onto the sticky conveyor belt. The check-out person moves the belt forward, carefully scanning each item like itâ€™s the Mona Lisa, and I take out my Visa debit card to pay. The beige cashier box has Tate as the brand, stamped in small elegant blue letters, like many electronics.
â€œNice day today,â€ she says.
â€œIt is,â€ I say, remembering to smile back at her.
â€œWish I were outside,â€ she says, glancing out the window.
â€œWhat would you be doing?â€ I ask. I once spent a day decorating the perimeter of the house with electronic lawn gnomes, which was a mistake. Iâ€™m always curious about what other people do, so I like to poll them as often as possible.
â€œProbably play ball with the kids,â€ she says, wrapping up my last bag.
â€œThat sounds nice,â€ I say, and it does sound nice somehow, like for a moment I can imagine wanting what she wants. Just a day in the sun with someone you love.
â€œYeah,â€ she says, finishing up the last bag. â€œHave a good day!â€
Did he have some sort of mental illness? Reports say he might have been receiving treatment. Obviously if he was, the treatment wasnâ€™t enough.
I turn off the car and lug everything into the house. Tara is still in the bathroom, where I left her, with towels and newspaper and a little bowl of water. I set everything up, fetch Tara, and turn on the enormous plasma screen television to the news channelâ€”domestic first and then international. Itâ€™s always good to keep up with whatâ€™s going on in the world.
â€œWell, maybe he was a psychopath,â€ one of the moderators say. As far as I can tell, theyâ€™re paid to be controversial. I pet Taraâ€™s tiny knobbly head with my index finger, feeling the minute indentations of her fragile skull. My finger swamps the top of her head and spills over onto her ears, flattening them. â€œAnti-social personality disorder is a real diagnosis.â€
â€œNo, no,â€ the other moderator says. â€œYou have no idea what was going on in his head. Itâ€™s not like he left a note.â€
â€œI know enough to know it was an inhuman act,â€ she says. â€œWho would do that except someone with very little empathy?â€
At this, I sigh and get up to start digging in the box of movies. Madame had everything converted to her own personal movie format so that the movies were stored in little plastic devices that looked more like flash drives than DVDâ€™s. She thought it was space efficient. I thought it just made everything difficult to find and label. I finally come up with 02-02-05 and put it in the drive in the side of the television.
I sit back on the couch, where Tara has discovered her brown pebble food and is eating delicately.â€œLetâ€™s watch silly Madame,â€ I tell her and press play.
The video is shaky before Madame stabilizes it. She steps back and puts her hands on her hips, grinning. Her hair is tied in a messy blonde bun, and her bare arms and white tank top are covered in grease. No protective gloves or goggles because then that would be following lab safety protocol, which naturally would be awful. A device that looks like an enormous black button sits in front of her.
â€œOkay, take three for the electronic bomb. Intention: To scramble all electronics within a three-mile radius and to create an interesting distraction.â€ She turns to glare off-camera at one of the helper bots. â€œDo not fire extinguish anything unless I am actually on fire, okay, I must actually be giving off flames for you to use that fire extinguisher.â€ The helper bot cheeps angrily in the background.
She turns back to the camera. Her royal purple glazed coffee cup full of Turkish coffee lies precariously on the edge of the table. â€œAll right, here we go,â€ she says, and I mouth the words along with her. She presses some buttons on the device, and nothing happens. I wince in advance. â€œWell, this is a bustâ€”â€œ green smoke hisses out from a hole in the device, and Madame starts to cough. â€œOh shit, that was not supposed to happenâ€”â€œ
â€œNo, not the coffee,â€ I say uselessly as the coffee gets knocked off the table and the cup shatters.
The helper bot uses the fire extinguisher. â€œDoes this look like a fire to you?â€ Madame yells, covered in white foam. â€œDear god, Iâ€™m running a circusâ€”â€œ and then the camera cuts out and the screen turns to snow.
â€œLetâ€™s watch another one,â€ I say to Tara and put in the 6-12-09 tape.
Dawn breaks over the horizon like an egg, yolk orange sunrise glazing residential houses in burning reds and yellows. I open the pantry and next the olive green Viennese roast coffee can to smell it, but it’s never as rich or aromatic as when it’s made. I grind the beans with the specialty grinder ordered from Greece and put two heaping tablespoons into the tiny metal ibrik, just large enough to make one cup of coffee. I reflexively add the cold cup of water and an eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon and mix it like beating an egg, cinnamon palpably grainy in the water amidst dissolving coffee. I place the ibrik over low heat until it boils, its long black handle turned away from me. Brown froth begins to gather at the top, and itâ€™s time to pour it, slow, into a white porcelain Turkish coffee cup.
I cradle the cup close to my chest, inhaling the deeply luxuriant scent of coffee that is textured with cinnamon, its heat warming my chin and the bottom of my nose. My shoulders unwind from my ears, and I peruse the two months’ worth of magazines I left on the counter: Cosmopolitan, GQ, National Geographic, Horticulture Magazine, Cat Fancy. My subscriptions end this month and that’s fine because I’ve started putting together model airplanes and cars, although my house is starting to look like a particularly manic episode of Hoarders.
I donâ€™t check my e-mail often, and it shows in the hundred unread e-mails I have in my inbox. I delete all of them except for my horoscope, technically Libra, and read it (â€œTrue love is just around the corner! Take a chanceâ€). Astrology is fascinatingâ€”no scientific basis for it whatsoever, completely relying on the Barnum effect to achieve any sort of accuracy, and yet itâ€™s so compelling. I am inexplicably delighted by it and have been reading my horoscope every day for the last three months.
A couple letters came in the mail, and I leave them with the magazines, unopened. I spend the morning building a model airplane while Tara sleeps on top of her food bowl, completely ignoring the ridiculously large and expensive bed I bought her. The phone rings in the afternoon, not even waking her, and I pick it up in the kitchen.
â€œAm I interrupting lunch?â€ my lawyer, Kit Thompson, says.
â€œNo,â€ I say, perching on a wooden bar stool. â€œNot at all.â€
â€œAh, yes,â€ she says, awkward. â€œWell, I received the documents with your notes, and Iâ€™m reading them over now. We could discuss them in person, but theyâ€™re due in a week so I figure we could just discuss them now.â€
â€œThatâ€™s fine,â€ I say. Light pours into the kitchen through the window over the sink, soaking the empress green marble island counter in sun.
I hear flipping papers. â€œPage two, line item three,â€ she says. â€œIf you choose to go forward with this, I think you should consider appointing a retroactive guardian or trustee.â€
â€œWill that really accomplish anything?â€ I say. â€œItâ€™ll just make the red tape longer.â€
â€œYou need all the help you can get,â€ she says, frank.
â€œShe left everything directly to me for a reason,â€ I say. â€œMany reasons, actually.â€
â€œSusan left everything to you against my incredibly strong advice to appoint a guardian,â€ she says. â€œIt could have helped sidestep this whole mess.â€
â€œThe military would have just found another way to contest the will,â€ I say, leaning forward to jot a note on sun-warmed tablet paper.
â€œObviously,â€ she says, impatient.
â€œIf I were her biological sonâ€”â€œ I start to say.
â€œOr even if she had just been able to adopt you on paper,â€ Kit says. â€œBut she couldnâ€™t, and youâ€™re not. Macklin, we have to start dealing with reality and soon. The will is almost through the probate process, and youâ€™ve got to decide if you want to make a real play to keep the inheritance.â€
I rub my fingers hard over my mouth. â€œI donâ€™t know what she wanted.â€
â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter at this point,â€ she says. â€œSusan isnâ€™t here, and you are, and if she had just damn well listened to meâ€”â€œ she cuts herself off and exhales into the receiver, creating dry static.
â€œShe didnâ€™t listen to anybody,â€ I say. Not even me, most of the time.
â€œStubborn asshole,â€ she says, fond. â€œI knew her for over half our lives and, of course, this legal mess is what I get out of it.â€
I grin into the phone, so relieved that there is someone who knew her like I knew her.
â€œBut really, youâ€™re going to have to make a decision,â€ Kit says finally. â€œWhatever you choose, it doesnâ€™t have to mean anything, or imply anything, if you donâ€™t want it to.â€
I close my eyes because of course it means something, it means everything. â€œYes. Fine.â€
She doesnâ€™t waste time on comforting me, and we just move on to page three, line item five.
Later, after the phone call, I pick out the 12-03-08 video to watch because itâ€™s close to her birthday and that year was a good year, the year of twenty-nine patents and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation Award and the two month long road trip across Europe because Iâ€™d never gone on one and she thought it was a crucial experience
I click play, and Madameâ€™s sunburned profile fills the screen. Sheâ€™s cursing because sheâ€™s driving stick, because most cars in Europe are stick, and she hates stick. â€œâ€”is the camera on?â€ she interrupts herself to ask. â€œYouâ€™ve got to film at least part of a road trip, itâ€™s a requirement.â€
â€œI can drive,â€ the me on screen says. Madame shifts gears violently, and the car sounds like itâ€™s about to be sick. â€œYouâ€™re going to grind the gears to dust at this rate, and what did this poor car ever do to you?â€
â€œBe born a stick shift,â€ she says through gritted teeth, shifting once more like sheâ€™s a Nascar driver, and the camera tilts as the car goes around a sharp curve.
â€œIâ€™m your assistant, let me assist.â€
â€œNo, you stay in the passenger seat and pretend to enjoy those Cheetos,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™ve got this. Youâ€™re going to have the best road trip ever if it kills me, and I truly think it will.â€
â€œItâ€™s going to kill the car first,â€ my voice says tartly.
â€œOh, shut up,â€ she says. The sun is setting in the distance, mostly blocked by Madameâ€™s face, but the light that floods the car turns everything soft and golden, and she looks warm and touchable. Itâ€™s russet farmland as far as the eye can see with dots of emerald green.
â€œSay hi to the camera.â€
â€œHello,â€ she says, rolling her eyes.
â€œYou have to face the camera,â€ I insist.
â€œArenâ€™t you the one whoâ€™s always going on about safety?â€ she says but turns toward the camera anyway, smirking, and says, droll, â€œHello, world. Hello, Macklin.â€
â€œWell, here we are,â€ my voice says. â€œOn a road trip. Itâ€™s filled with dirt so far.â€
â€œYou can turn the camera off now,â€ she says. â€œHand me one of those god awful Cheetos.â€
â€œYou hate Cheetos,â€ my voice says and then the camera cuts off. Tara lies on my lap, and sheâ€™s so light her weight doesnâ€™t even register. I stroke her soft sides, my breath whistling in and out of my chest sounding like I have a chest cold. I want to watch her say â€œHello, Macklin,â€ over and over again because it was also the first thing she ever said to me when we met. The digital clock on the cable box reads 3:03 AM, red and unmistakable. I sit there in the dark, feeling scraped raw and nauseous, and then I turn on the weather.
â€œItâ€™s raining across the Midwest area,â€ the meteorologist says, calm because thereâ€™s no real emotion in reporting the weather. I lie down heavily, curling around Tara, and exhale my breath all the way out as the meteorologist describes the tropical storm gallivanting across Florida.
Twenty two year old Nick King went to Greenwood Forest Elementary school in the middle of the day, armed with a gun. Police have finally come out with the number of casualties, and Iâ€™m so very sad to sayâ€”nine children killed and one teacher. Itâ€™s terrible.
The light has been red for an interminable amount of time and the woman in the car next to me has resorted to touching up her make-up. The line at the bank was long, and the actual process of combining accounts was tedious. Madame has caches of money stored everywhere, and I donâ€™t see the point of it anymore, especially since itâ€™s all getting tally-marked up by lawyers anyway. She revised her will and put my name on all of the accounts in spring 2010, which created a lot of hassle at the time but now Iâ€™m glad she did because itâ€™s what has allowed me to stay in our house.
2010 had some of the worst months, the heatstroke summer months where Madame constantly visited the Albert Einstein hospital morgue to dissect cadavers and then went home to the workshop for all hours of the night before going back to the morgue, her frown carving deeper all the while. This eventually produced a fraught afternoon in the isolated basement of the morgue where, horrifyingly, the air conditioning was out, which meant a contractor worked frantically to get it back on before the cadavers putrefied. Sweat dripped from Madameâ€™s glowering face into a cadaverâ€™s open chest cavity as she doggedly made cut after cut. She was on a tight military deadline for an experimental program on artificially intelligent explosives that would hypothetically be able to maneuver themselves. Madame was using human circuitry as inspiration, and more often than not, it resulted in thrown wrenches and once a punched wall.
We had parked illegally around the corner from Albert Einsteinâ€™s hospital morgue because she swore weâ€™d only be there a few minutes, ten at most, really, and we strode down the block only to see a clump of police gathered around the corner under the ledge of one of the business buildings. Police cars littered the street so that hardly anyone could drive past. We rounded the corner, and a large section next to the building was cordoned off with yellow tape, empty of cops and on-lookers.
Behind the tape, a white sheet was loosely wrapped around an elongated figure, so still and only vaguely in the shape of a person. It had all of the energy of a chair, inert and inorganic, and was all alone on unstained concrete under butter yellow sunlight. Absolutely no lingering feeling existed in the space of that figure, just tranquility sinking inexorably into the un-tucked ends of the white sheet that fluttered in a soft breeze. The body had just recently been a person, breathing and heart beating, and so quickly he or she was deserted around the corner of a stone building.
Madame didnâ€™t even look, face set ahead, and then we were out of sight and onto the hospital. I had seen countless cadavers at that point but to the extent they were fodder for hapless medical students, they were practically inhuman, just a collection of parts to be cut open. But here I thought, so this is death, and memorized it.
Thereâ€™s only one 2010 tape, and I keep it in the other house in LA with the 2011 tapes of Madameâ€™s progressively self-destructive test runs of experimental AI. Her last attempt at the self-thinking explosive was an abject shitshow that ended in injury and a new residence, while also attracting military displeasure when she point-blank informed them the contract wasnâ€™t going to happen. This project had already been in lieu of other projects Madame had strong ethical objections to, and sheâ€™d ended up cloistering herself in the brownstone in New York, doing nothing but watching terrible reality television and chugging Monster energy drinks. I taped her scathing running commentary on Say Yes to the Dress until she actually Stockholmed herself into becoming invested and faintly weepy, which was when I stopped taping and confiscated the remote.
Three weeks later, in the beginning of October, the military finally agreed to nix the contract in disgust when Madame told them either her next contract was to improve flak jackets or she was mutinying to the marines. She spent the next two months gleefully sending off flak jacket prototypes until early December arrived when her mood plunged with the temperature. Madame had always had blacker moods than what I assumed the average person had, and this was far from the worst butâ€”it was another episode in a series of increasingly contiguous episodes.
Winter was hard for Madame anyway, who was true to her coloring and craved brightness and light, and the cold and amplified darkness made her lethargic, listless. We stayed in LA most of the time but that winter we stayed here, in Pennsylvania, due to its relative proximity to DC. The flak jacket contract had gone some way in repairing her relationship with the military, and she had signed on for several more involving defense, rather than the offensive AI weapons they truly wanted. Madame was one of the top five knowledgeable people in the world on AI, but she found it fraught with philosophical implications that rapidly became moral when put into practice. Could an entity with any amount of thinking power be ethically bought and sold, let alone consent to whatever it was told to do? Did it depend on the level of thinking power, and if so, where was the line?
One particularly bitter winter night after a day of phone shouting matches with the engineers in R&D, Madame woke up screaming, which had been happening more frequently as she geared up to visit some of the bases overseas to make sure her inventions were working properly. She was a soldier for the first seven years of her adult life to pay for school, and it was unclear whether it was she or the military that had never let go; either way, it was the longest term relationship of her life. I was in the study, working on the accounts, when I heard the screaming and hurried to her room. She never let her infrequent lovers sleep over, but I had always been allowed to see her in all of her states.
She was sitting up in bed, hands clenched in her lap, head bowed. Thin moonlight made the room look monochrome and grainy, like a faded black and white photograph or the slow healing shades of a bruise. Her space heater hummed next to the bed, dispensing dry heat that created static and a steep electricity bill. I crawled in next to her, close enough to be enveloped in the damp heat of sleep and sweat and the orchid scent of her lotion. I placed both of my hands on her hands, where they were shaking on top of the blankets, and she shuddered noiselessly, leaning her head even further down to rest her hot forehead on my hand. Her chin brushed my wrist, wet with tears, and she whispered into our hands, â€œIâ€™m such a bad person.â€
â€œNo, youâ€™re not,â€ I said immediately and pressed myself tightly against her side, laying my chest against her back like the branches of a tree shelters its roots, trying to impress upon her body with mine how indispensable she was to me.
â€œYou donâ€™t understand, Macklin, you donâ€™t understand,â€ she moaned. Her back shook, her body an earthquake in the microcosm, tearing itself apart from the inside out.
â€œShhh,â€ I said into her hot neck, like the sound of the ocean, and rocked her back and forth. â€œShhh.â€
â€œItâ€™s still in me, like a movie,â€ she said, voice tight. â€œJust replaying over and over, and I just never stop killing them, I never get to stop.â€ Her body jerked as she clamped down on a sob, pushing our hands against her stomach hard as if her insides were in danger of falling out.
I held her hard as if putting pressure on an open wound, wishing desperately I could reach into the subterranean depths of her and cut out whatever had lodged itself there that made her so sick with self-denigration. It had the texture of a terrible cyst that kept growing and growing, and I constantly struggled not to unravel at the edges at the thought that it might never stop, might just swallow her up whole.
â€œI just want to be better,â€ she said, panting. â€œIâ€™m trying to be better.â€
â€œYouâ€™re so good, Iâ€™d give anything for you to see it,â€ I said helplessly into her silky hair, my lips brushing against her clammy temple. She made a small noise into my neck, something verging on a whimper, and I cupped the back of her head, fingers resting on the delicate grooves of her skull, the origin point of all of her extraordinary ideas. I stayed there the whole night, my chest tight and aching, feeling profound dread for the time when she would go overseas alone and I would have to stay here.
I park the 2008 cherry red Audi that Madame drove but is now deeded to my name and look at our houseâ€™s peeling yellow paint that we were supposed to paint over this summer, together, and I just hurt all over, full-body. Madame hated gardening but deigned to let gardeners grow orchids by the porch and I never found out why. It was something I always meant to ask her, along with a whole bunch of other questions, and now I canâ€™t, not even just one. I turn off the radio thatâ€™s still going and shut off the car. Itâ€™s suddenly so quiet.
I get out of the car and go up the front walk, shaky, the world seeming overly bright. My skin feels over-sensitized and tender, wind brushing carelessly over me like sandpaper. When Iâ€™m inside, I roam upstairs to Madameâ€™s room, where the air is hot and insubstantial and stale. I open a window to let the room ventilate and then sit on the unwashed sheets of her bed that havenâ€™t smelled like her for a long time now.
When the doorbell rings, I pretend not to be home. Then I hear scratching at the doorknob, like a cat asking to be let in, and resignedly wait the thirty seconds it takes Rodney Morrison to break in.
â€œLittle bit of help wouldnâ€™t have been amiss,â€ he says, swinging the door open and walking inside, large heavy steel-toed boots on lush ivory carpet.
â€œThat would presume that I want you here,â€ I say, not moving from the couch with Tara on my lap.
â€œAnd what happened to Susanâ€™s alarm systems?â€ he says, as if I havenâ€™t spoken. â€œYouâ€™re just a sitting duck here.â€
I shrug because I know he hates shrugging, thinks itâ€™s the last resort of spinelessness. Rodney and Madame had a long history of battling one-upmanship where she built bigger and better security systems, and he broke in at all hours of the day and ate all of our food.
â€œI sent e-mails, I called,â€ he says. â€œHell, I even sent letters, so now here I am, and weâ€™re going to talk.â€
â€œDoes the military know its dog is off its leash?â€ I say, polite.
â€œVery funny,â€ he says and then, â€œMacklinâ€”â€œ
I shake my head, slow.
He runs a hand over his face, and I take in the bruised eyes, the three days of stubble, the unslicked dark hair. Heâ€™s been traveling.
â€œJust as a point of interest, what are you going to do with all of Susanâ€™s things?â€ he says.
â€œWhat she wanted me to do with them,â€ I say.
â€œAnd that isâ€¦?â€
â€œNone of your business,â€ I say.
His mouth tightens. â€œSusan was my friend too, you know. I miss her too.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re not here for you,â€ I say. â€œYouâ€™re here on behalf of the military.â€
â€œWhy canâ€™t it be both?â€ he says, defiant, and Iâ€™m startled by how he seems to truly believe thatâ€™s possible.
â€œBecause now thereâ€™s no middle ground,â€ I say, gentle. â€œYouâ€™re either on my side, or youâ€™re on their side.â€
â€œShe left everything to us first, you know,â€ he remarks, coming further into the room.
â€œAnd then she changed it,â€ I say.
â€œYeah, she did,â€ he says tiredly. â€œMacklin, you have to understand, Susan made incredibly valuable contributions to our safety. Her inventions are meant to be doing something more important than gathering dust in storage.â€
â€œWell, I think that was her choice, wasnâ€™t it,â€ I say. â€œYou seem to think itâ€™s okay to just make whatever decisions you want, regardless of other peopleâ€™s feelings.â€
â€œWhen said people have gone off and died when they should have evacuated with all the other inessentials, Iâ€™m not sure it matters anymore,â€ he says, bitter.
â€œIt still matters,â€ I say, frowning. â€œIt always matters.â€
â€œLook,â€ he says, â€œyou didnâ€™t know Susan before she joined the army. It wasâ€”bad. The army gave her the purpose she was lacking, and this is a way to continue that legacy.â€
â€œAnd you werenâ€™t here the past two years,â€ I say. â€œPeople change when youâ€™re not looking.â€
â€œShe canâ€™t leave it all to you anyway,â€ he says after a moment. â€œIt doesnâ€™t make any sense.â€
â€œAnd why not?â€ I say.
He looks completely taken aback. â€œWell. Youâ€™re notâ€”youâ€™re not a person,â€ he says, awkward, like realizing the person you thought knew their spouse was cheating on them didnâ€™t actually know, and you were the oaf to tell them.
The room fuzzes, Rodneyâ€™s face dark against eggshell colored walls, and I suck in a breath, my cheeks becoming two nuclear spots on my face. â€œDonâ€™t tell me that,â€ I croak out. â€œYou didnâ€™t even know until she told you.â€
â€œAnimals need some sort of trustee when theyâ€™re left something in a will, and youâ€™re not evenâ€”â€ he tilts his head helplessly.
â€œIâ€™m not even onâ€”on the level of an animal,â€ I try to finish evenly, but I canâ€™t, it feels like he gutted me open and he can just see everything inside, every dry, heartless inch. Rodney winces. â€œThe thing is,â€ I say, carefully enunciating each word, lips trembling, â€œhumans are capable of atrocious acts, and I mean, things so horrific that they canâ€™t even be processed. Just watch the news. And while people may argue about their emotional states and the metaphorical status of their humanity, in the endâ€”they still have more rights than I do?â€ I canâ€™t help the way my voice goes up at the end, almost cracking, all unwanted vulnerability, and I feel absolutely razed by humiliation.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Macklin,â€ he says, and Iâ€™ve never heard him say sorry, not even when Madame and him got into the big blow-up of 2010 and they didnâ€™t speak for a year.
I canâ€™t speak, chest feeling like itâ€™s gone too cold to absorb air, voice box on lockdown.
â€œJustâ€”consider it,â€ he says, sagging conspicuously in his steel-toed boots before quietly opening the door and closing it behind him.
My favorite show is Doctor Who, but really, I love any show with affection toward aliens. Fictional AI representation in the media has a tendency toward homicidal dictatorship (is there any other kind?), which I think is an incredibly narrow-minded view that mirrors both humanityâ€™s fears of the unknown and something more advanced taking their place. But humanity also likes to create in their own image so perhaps itâ€™s more of a reflection of their fears about themselvesâ€”that deep down, their base aggressions are the sum of who they are. Regardless, I like aliens because theyâ€™re not human, but theyâ€™re still considered people, capable of love and sadness and agency.
I do actually pass the Turing test, which Iâ€™m fairly sure is going to be brought up in court at some point. I mean, I donâ€™t eat and I donâ€™t sleep, butâ€”are those tasks essential to the human experience? My skin is warm, and I can absorb the pleasure of touch, and my chest still hurts brutally six months later whenever I think about Madame. What is the definition of what makes someone human, and where is the line drawn between machine and person? At what point in the rungs of intelligence does a machine become a person instead of an object? The implications of this question for humanity make people think uncomfortably of eugenics and genocide, and, of course, everyoneâ€™s divided. But Madameâ€™s always been on my side.
Madame wrote papers upon papers regarding this and never published them, in which she addressed the distinction between being human and being a person and how humans tend to subsume the concept of personhood into humanity, as if no one else is worthy of that honor. If Madame had wanted to make a human, she could have, but she didnâ€™t. She made me.
I look into the box of tapes for the one I keep at the bottom, out of sight and touch: 07-08-12. Madame took intermittent trips overseas into war zones by herself for the last year to lend an inventing hand, and we had a big fight about it right before she left the last time. I wanted to go too because Madame had lost weight and color and who was going to care about keeping her fed and rested except me? But she shut me down with her usual argument of not wanting the military to get their long arms and grasping hands near me, blue eyes feverish and looking determinedly at the wall behind me. Even on the verge of collapsing in on herself, gaunt cheekbones taking up increased real estate on her face, she had her hands hooked firmly behind her in military stance.
In the end, she went alone, and this is the last video. Iâ€™ve only watched it once when I was hacking into the security cams, frantic because Madame wasnâ€™t answering when I called and itâ€™d been three days.
I press play and the television immediately drops into the pixelated grays of the security cam, 07/08/2012 blinking in the upper right-hand corner. Madame leans on the high desktop of the secretary, chatting to her about the bees she kept in her enormous backyard, which gave them fresh honey every year.
â€œI couldnâ€™t keep a plant alive,â€ Madame says, dry and slightly wistful, when the room shakes from a deafening explosion from outside. The secretaryâ€™s radio crackles and a manâ€™s voice says, â€œBreak-Break, HE-FRAG in the north wing, Break-Break, HE-FRAG in the north wing, need CEV.â€
â€œWe need to get out of here,â€ the secretary says crisply.
Madame stares out the door from where the explosion came and says, â€œNo, you go on ahead.â€
â€œYouâ€™re only on the substitute roster,â€ the secretary argues.
â€œListen to her, please, listen to her,â€ I canâ€™t help whispering, feeling utterly sick with knowledge.
â€œJohn got transferred,â€ Madame says, and the secretaryâ€™s mouth opens and closes uselessly, the moment suspended in shitty gray-scale camera footage, two whole seconds ticking by in the lower right-hand corner. Madame turns again to look at the door, and I pause it there, right before she steps forward, and rewind it to the beginning.
Two days before she left, on July second, Madame and I went to the Springfield Diner, and we sat on sticky, duct-taped booth seats, waiting for her eggs, when she said, â€œWhat happens to characters when the book ends?â€
â€œThere are sequels sometimes,â€ I said. â€œAre we including series in the parameters of this question?â€
â€œEven they end, usually,â€ she said. â€œEventually. Therefore yes. So what do the characters do when itâ€™s over?â€
â€œContinue living their lives off-screen, presumably,â€ I said.
â€œBut does the off-screen even exist?â€ she said.
â€œIf you have an imagination, yes,â€ I said.
â€œItâ€™s not written down though. No oneâ€™s watching. Maybe it doesnâ€™t happen,â€ she said. â€œLike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.â€
â€œWell, thatâ€™s the thing,â€ I said. â€œWhat happens after the book ends is whatever you think happens.â€
â€œIf a tree falls in the forest and thereâ€™s no one around to hear, does it make a sound?â€ she countered.
â€œYes, I think a person can still live a meaningful life,â€ I said, as her eggs arrived. â€œThat person still exists, even if no oneâ€™s watching. You could even say thereâ€™s an extra freedom there where even more possibilities open up.â€
â€œGood,â€ she said, digging into her eggs. â€œI was hoping youâ€™d say that.â€
The video relentlessly unspools to Madame once again regarding the door, secretary frozen behind her, and Madame takes the step forward I wouldnâ€™t allow her before. â€œEverything is all right,â€ Madame said without looking behind her. â€œEverything is fine.â€ She strides out the door, her gait assured and determined, but her face is distant, her eyes are wide, as if sheâ€™s bunkered down inside herself. And then sheâ€™s gone. The secretary waits one second, two seconds, before high-tailing it out the back door in sensible pumps. The room is empty and still, radio still crackling with orders.
I wait for longer than I did before, white numbered minutes turning into an hour, but nothing else happens, no one comes back. I rewind again to that last moment when she walks out of the room and pause when her face is most exposed to the camera. She never looked up at it once. Without the camouflage of motion, only her wide hurt eyes are left, the slight openness of her mouth as if someone hit her, and all I can think is, I should have been there, I should have gone. I canâ€™t cry, all I can do is make a low flat sound into my hands, gasping and pressing my fingers into the skin under my eyes, trying to expunge the tight ball of overwhelming desolation from my gut. Her face is all muffled shock, like sheâ€™s on the tipping point of realizing whatâ€™s happening, and when I click play, she walks out before she ever reaches full comprehension. I can feel my face crumpling all at once, reflexive, because this is the finish and thereâ€™s no secret message meant for me, here or ever. Iâ€™ve looked, and Iâ€™ve looked, and here I am at the last stop, no one left on the train except for me.
I turn off the television and pick up Tara from where sheâ€™s buried herself in a corner of the couch. Sheâ€™s already a little bigger, a little heavier, since sheâ€™s been living with me, and she feels blisteringly hot in comparison to the freezing skin of my arms. I move to the kitchen and dial Kit even though itâ€™s half past ten at night.
â€œMacklin, whatâ€™s wrong?â€ she says immediately because Iâ€™ve never called this late.
â€œNothing,â€ I say but I sound horrible and she can probably hear my teeth chattering. I clear my throat and sound marginally less ill. â€œIâ€™ve considered, and Iâ€™m not letting this go. Iâ€™m not appointing anyone either.â€
Kit is silent and then, â€œAre you sure? Once this starts, it canâ€™t be stopped. Itâ€™s going to be plastered all over the TV and internet.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure,â€ I say. A large part of me quails at the prospect of the impending media shitstorm, let alone military ire, but the alternative is legally signing away everything I am. â€œThis is what I want to do.â€
â€œOkay,â€ she says. â€œThen letâ€™s do it.â€
I wait for something to happen, like lightning striking me for extreme hubrisâ€”how dare I think myself worthyâ€”but itâ€™s just Kitâ€™s quiet breathing on the other end of the line and Tara purring in my arms. The relief catches me off guard, makes me light-headed, and I take in a breath unimpeded by the constant, low-grade tightness in my chest thatâ€™s been there for years. I made the decision and nothing happened except this terrible relief. The earth did not swallow me up, Madame did not come back, having resolutely finished all of her decision-making six months ago, and Iâ€™m still here, life continuing on even when no one is watching.
Copyright 2016 Lauren Rudin
About the Author
Lauren Rudin loves to read and write speculative fiction. Her favorite authors include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Elizabeth Wein. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology in Pennsylvania.