Tag Archives: long fiction

Roach Farm

Sea monkeys. Ant farms. Butterfly cages. The ephemera of childhood hobbies I’m sure every red-blooded American kid is well-versed in.

I didn’t get an ant farm or a butterfly cage or a plastic tank with a pack of freeze-dried brine shrimp. I got a roach farm. A 5X7 terrarium of scuffed and yellowed lucite, a packet of dirt, and what looked like a shiny brown cigar.

My dad made a joke of it. “If you can take good care of it, then we’ll think about getting you that slug.” Then he’d laugh and take another drink of Schlitz, thrilled by the weight of his own humor. Like I did with most of his jokes, I played as if it were said completely straight. I set up the box on my dresser top, dumped out the dirt, and set the small brown stub gently within. I had no idea how roaches lived, aside from the popular conception of them as a kitchen nuisance, so I littered the farm with the usual wildlife furniture: a bit of bark, some lichen, and a small, flat rock. Then I left it to its own devices.

My father would needle me about the farm’s progress (“have they learned any tricks yet?”) so I looked up roach facts to parry his derogatory jabs. I learned a single roach can live off the glue from a postage stamp for a week, that a roach can live without its head for up to a month, that their tendency to seek out warm, dark spaces has led to them occasionally found lodged in people’s ears because they lack the ability to back up. Like so many of my father’s attempts to discourage me from a subject, it only led me into deeper fascination.

I can remember rolling out of bed one morning and noticing the cluster of tan dots in the cage. My roach children had finally hatched.

And God help me, I found them precious.

I remember I put my hand inside out of some childhood petting impulse. They scurried under the shadow of my hand to hide, and a pact was born between us. I had to defend them now, I had to keep them warm and fed and alive because they had sought shelter with me.

In many respects they were the perfect pet for me. A cat might have lashed out in fear, and gotten its brains bashed out for the trouble. A dog might have tried to defend me, leading to more brutal treatment for both of us. But the roaches? When my father would rage and scream I would sit on the bed with my cage and we would be quiet together. I could empathize with them because I understood the urge to retreat into some small, dark space when something bigger came at you. My father pronounced the both of us disgusting. When he forbid me from setting foot in the kitchen over some imagined slight, I would sneak out at midnight and steal food for the both of us.

My roaches grew into shiny brown oblongs. They would preen themselves under my care, fussily cleaning their antennae as I held them in cupped palm. I liked to think that they were the neatest, best-kept insects in the world. I read in ancient China that they kept crickets in special cages. Had anyone kept roaches? Perhaps I was the first.

The end came in painful hiccups, rather than one fell swoop.

My father upended my cage, hissing in disgust as my pets scurried away. He beat me for putting my body in between his slippered feet and their retreating forms.

My mother, the new owner of a rather painful collarbone fracture, could no longer keep up with the housework. No amount of shouting on my father’s part could rectify that, and the house grew ankle-deep in trash.

Finally the day came when my father drove us from the house, dribbling and screaming in an alcoholic rage. Perhaps at another time, we would have come back. Lord knows we had already gone back too many times before. But by the time we reached my aunt’s house, the money felicitously ran out. No one in her family would spare money for us to return to our abuser’s den, so we remained happily stuck.

Since my mother was the sole breadwinner, the utilities were shut off one by one. The phone was the first to go, so we were spared the rants that cropped up with each new injustice. I can imagine my father raging in that house alone. Sitting in the dark as the electricity shut off, piling on blanket after blanket as the heat went. Would anything have changed if we went back? Even now, with the wisdom of hindsight, I doubt it.

It was a year and a half later that someone knocked on our door. A policeman with hat in hand, saying he had grave news for us. A former neighbor had called for a wellness check because my father hadn’t been outside for weeks, and there was a terrible smell welling up from the house…

I can imagine my father simplifying his life after we left. Leaving the house only to get food and drink, piling the filth up in a nest around him to further buttress his self-pity. I can imagine him making a fort of blankets in the living room next to the bucket he used as a toilet and a battery-operated TV.

I can imagine my pets. My roaches, stranded in the filth of that house. Growing. Feeding. Breeding. I can imagine their fear as winter set in. How they would seek out the one source of warmth left in the household, nestled in a crusty shell of blankets with a snoring mouth gaping open in invite…

My mother let the city arrange a burial. My father had no family left to wonder why his funeral was closed-casket.

I don’t think of my father much anymore. His memory is a vague, unpleasant smear on my mind that I have no wish to revisit.

I think of my bygone pets. How all they had really wanted was warmth and safety. How they must have been terrified in those last few moments, unable to turn back, unable to fight the press of their family’s bodies as they were forced into every dark, wet cavity available to them.

And, God help me, I find them more precious than ever.

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A Haunting

He did not know how or when it began, but Peter realized over the course of many months that he was reluctant to go home at the end of the day. The excuses grew naturally out of real needs and wants: they were out of milk, he wanted to catch up with an old friend, traffic delayed him. But the excuses wore thinner and thinner. It was on a Tuesday, when he was looking at his reflection illuminated by the last rays of a sinking sun in the blacked-out window of an empty shop, when Peter finally came clean to himself: he truly did not want to go home.

But why?

He spent many days gnawing at the question. He was not tired of his wife, Nina. Their daughter Shannon did not treat him with open hostility. He had no reason to believe the two-story colonial gingerbread he lived in was haunted.

…but he paused on that thought.

What was a haunting but an unfriendly, unwelcome habitation? And, truth be told, when he came home without any family to greet him, he felt himself the unwelcome guest. He was haunting his own house.

Peter laughed. How could he haunt his own house? His paintings on the walls, his aftershave sharing the sink rim with Nina’s antiperspirant, his daughter’s growing heights notched into the dining room wall? True, his family was what made the house his home. But he belonged there, just as much as anyone.

Peter parked the Cheverolet in the driveway and stared up at the dim windows. From this angle, they had a cant that made them resemble unfriendly eyes. The front knob would not accept his key. Peter struggled with the lock, fighting down a growing dread.

“Peter?”  Nina parked and spilled out of her sedan. Shannon pried herself from the passenger side under the bulk of the dry cleaning. Nina stepped primly up the front walk, drawing her key like a sword.

“Door trouble?”

“I guess.” Peter’s face reddened. “Maybe we should call a locksmith.”

The knob accepted Nina’s key without complaint. The door practically fell open. Nina cast a critical eye to Peter’s key. “Maybe we should make another copy.”

Peter mumbled something.

The house was a cold blank until she hit the hall switch and suddenly they were transported to their home, with the ship-rope rugs on the bare hardwood floors and a photo of his grandparents hanging just above the shoe rack.

It would have been too easy to forget about it once snugly confined in the bosom of his family. Nina chattering over pasta, Shannon practising steps in the hall. Peter sat in a snug chair that had survived through college and felt very much at home.

But he did not forget.

“Maybe we should get a dog,” he said later that night. Nina, in bed with her magazine, gave him an aside glance.

“Who’s going to walk it? Shannon is full-time this semester, and I don’t have the kind of mental space for an animal.”

“I was just thinking, you know, when I get home, the house is so empty…” the reasons, so concrete in his head, slipped from his fingers. Nina put a small kiss just above his eyebrow.

“Oh Peter,” she said, in a tone that could have been pitying or contemptuous.

He embraced the time away from the house. He went to work and spoke with colleagues and lived. He was a person who belonged in the world. As long as he kept away from the problem, there was no problem, right?

After a few rounds of pool, long past dark and the point where Nina should be home, Peter received a text. He pulled over and let the cold screen light the car.

PRACTICE LATE. WE’RE GRABBING TAKEOUT. LEFTOVERS IN FRIDGE.

Peter parked askew in the driveway. His hands were shaking. Above him loomed the house, dark and disapproving as a tombstone. He sat in the car. How late was late? He could stay in the car, play it off like he’d just got home when they arrived. He thumbed through a paperback under his dome light. He played spider solitaire until his battery ran low. He ran the heater until his head hit the back of the seat and someone was suddenly rapping on the driver’s side window.

“Peter?” Nina’s voice was alarmed. Peter killed the engine. His wife and daughter gazed concernedly through the window. Flushed red, he tried to play it off.

“Late. Must’ve fallen asleep.” The dashboard clock said near midnight.

Peter got out of the car and stretched. Nina was not budging.

“You’re starting to worry me, Peter. You’re staying out later and later, now…this.” She indicated the car with her hand. “What are you afraid of?”

“Afraid?” Peter laughed.

“Daddy, come on.” Shannon looked at him through dewdrop-thick glasses. “You keep coming home late, and you won’t let us leave the house without you.”

Their gazes were sterile pins. He was being dissected. Nina shook her head.

“Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and turning him around, “use your key. Go in. There’s nothing wrong.”

Peter tried very hard to make his legs bend, tried not to fight them as they pushed him up the walk, but he couldn’t make his body obey properly. The dead front window glared at him, showed him a room cold and empty and unwelcoming. He needed them to go first, to purify the air with their laughter, but they were behind him and pushing.

“There,” Nina stopped. “Key in the lock. You can do it.”

Peter fumbled with the keys. He dropped them twice. Nina was less than amused. The lock stuck, refusing to accept the whole key at first and then refusing to turn one way or the other. He looked to the girls for help. Nina nodded impatiently at the door.

The lock snicked open like a sudden jeer. Peter had to shove the door to get it moving. The front hallway was cold and dark.

He looked back. Nina nodded again. After you.

Peter’s footsteps carried reverb. He walked down the front hall, dark and strange to him. He couldn’t even remember where the hall switch was as he felt along the wall.

“Okay there, I’m…in.” He could bring himself to say ‘home.’ Where was the damn switch?

“Well?”

He turned back. The hall was dark. There was no door.

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Gilly, Or A Boy and His Tadpole

The tadpole was the size of a man’s thumbnail and colored a blue so dark it was almost black. The other tadpoles were all yellow-green and many times its size, American Bullfrog larvae. Ethan had paged through his junior nature guide three times and still hadn’t found anything remotely resembling the newcomer.

He dipped a sycamore twig into the water, disturbing the surface. The bullfrogs fled, but the blue tadpole curled curiously up to it. Ethan lifted the stick from the water. The tadpole came with it, flattening to the rough surface. Out of the water its blue shone iridescent. Tilting the stick this way and that, Ethan studied the little passenger. The tadpole had no visible eyes and its fins were transparent, bordering on invisible. He had never seen anything like it, and it woke some protective instinct in him. What if one of the bigger tadpoles ate it?

Ethan decided to run home and fetch a jelly jar. The tadpole would live on his windowsill, fed with lunch meat until it had grown. This plan lasted to the point when Ethan opened his front door. Bombarded with homework, chores, do this, do that, Ethan’s world ceased to include the pond. He remembered only a little bit, just before drifting off that night.

It may have been the next day, it may have been three days later when he got back out to the pond. Too little time, surely, for all the bullfrog tadpoles to mature and hop away. Yet the little pond was empty.

No, not empty.

As Ethan dipped a stick into the water, the strange tadpole swam up via a series of curlicues. Ethan smiled. The tadpole seemed to be thriving with the lack of competition. Now it was the span of Ethan’s hand and a brighter blue. Ethan squatted. The extra sandwich he made was shredded into the water, where the bread soaked and sank. The tadpole touched nothing. What did it want? Ethan regretted not hedging his bets with PB&J.

A lone bullfrog tadpole ascended to mouth the surface of the pond, dimpling it. Like a shot, the blue tadpole was upon it, circling it. The bullfrog tadpole seemed to disintegrate. Ethan’s eyes popped wide. That was the best thing he’d seen in his entire life. He watched the strange tadpole swim somewhat forlornly around the now-empty pond. What would it eat now?

Ethan had an idea. Uncle Henry had a feeder pond in his cattle field. In an afternoon’s work of splashing and coaxing, he got the tadpole into one of his larger sand buckets. With many careful steps Ethan brought the tadpole to its new home, upending the bucket and disturbing the minnows.

Ethan was not able to visit every single day, but was pleased with the progress nonetheless. The tadpole grew larger, features became more distinct. Unlike the poor bullfrog larvae, the strange tadpole had visible gills. Not behind its head, like a fish, but all along its body. Ethan decided to dub it “Gilly.”  Gilly still did not have even vestigial eyespots but bore a mouthful of sharp needle teeth.

A week after introducing Gilly to the pond, Ethan ran into his uncle on the worn cattle trail. Uncle Henry had on his fishing waders and elbow-length rubber gloves.

“Whatcha doing uncle Henry?”

Henry grunted. “Some kinda Snakehead got in the feeder pond.”

“Uh-oh. Is it dangerous?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go sticking fingers in there any time soon.”

“I won’t, sir,” Ethan said. He turned right back around and went home. He grabbed a 3-gallon bucket and the aquarium net. Gilly took much less coaxing this time, perhaps he had learned that buckets meant good things in his future.

Ethan’s mother never allowed him to swim in Redtail pond on account of all the scrap metal lying on the bottom, but she let him fish up the shiny silver sticklebacks (provided he let them go afterwards.) Plenty of room, plenty of food, and water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. For a moment after being dumped out, Gilly hung on the surface of the cold water before wriggling away as if burrowing through the liquid.

It was not even a week later when Ethan, bearing his lunch bag to another session by the water, stumbled upon a teen girl kneeling beside the pond and sobbing. A woman had a hand on her shoulder, other hand pressed to her mouth as if to hold in an ugly sob. At their feet was a bloody and torn dog’s leash.

“…I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “he just went under.”

Ethan crossed to the far end of the pond to eat his sandwich.

The pond was no longer a haven. Ethan saw a man sitting by the dock with his jeans rolled up to the knee, everything below his right ankle bloody and raw. Missing pet signs bloomed from every telephone pole.

Ethan found his father in the workshop.

“Pop,” he said,” could you fix my wagon so the sides come up?”

His father tapped his knee. “How far?”

“Half again.” Ethan held his hands out to indicate height.

“Sure. Hey, what for? You havin’ a teddy bear parade?” his father needled. Ethan said nothing.

They were able to build a sort of crude extension from boards fitted and nailed to one another. Ethan waterproofed it with a block of his mother’s canning paraffin. Crude, but it held.

Redtail pond had sprouted a shiny new “no swimming” sign on its shore. Ethan rolled his wagon to the water’s edge. He found a good-sized stick and slapped the pond surface.

A bit of moving debris caught his eye. Gilly surfaced, shedding the colors that had led Ethan to mistake it for a clump of weeds and a rock. Gilly was now the size of a duck. Black cilia frothed from his gills. His mouth opened up half the length of his body, disclosing myriad white fences of teeth.

Ethan knelt. “Hey Gilly.” Did the tadpole understand speech? He seemed to grin knowingly as he tread water. “This little pond is getting too dangerous for you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”

He rolled the wagon down into the water. Gilly cooperatively swam over the lip of the wagon, which by some miracle held on its rough passage back to shore. Water sloshed over the edge, so Ethan covered it with his rain slicker.

On the road from the pond, he ran into two Fish and Game wardens bearing dip nets.

“Go home, son,” one of them admonished. Ethan nodded.

Rolling the wagon over grass and gravel, it took what seemed like forever to arrive at his destination.

“Here we are,” he said, pulling off the slicker, “the lake might have bad fish in it, but there’s plenty more places to hide.”

Gilly eagerly butted the walls of the wagon. Ethan knelt, feeling silly about how wet his eyes were.

“Sorry I can’t see what kind of frog you turn into, buddy. Make lots of little tadpoles, okay?”

He rolled the wagon into the lake.

Gilly swam out fluidly, working his entire body like a paddle. He hung blue against the sandy bottom of the lake before shifting color and vanishing. Ethan remained kneeling, cuffs sodden and cold. He was sad, but it was a satisfying sad. It felt like the end of some kid’s book: A Boy and His Tadpole.

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Wreckers

If there was one consistent nightmare to my childhood, it was this: Legends of the Eastern Coast, page 12, plate 2. The Wreckers. I can’t tell you what horrors that etching awoke in my young soul, those vile people with their sneering grins and makeshift weapons. They didn’t wear buccaneer finery, didn’t fly the jolly roger or drink rum. They were land pirates, my grandfather explained to me, a thousand times more terrible than any scurvy dog I had come to know. He would dissect the scene for me, sickle-moon fingernail hovering on each crucial point of the illustration. Here is the signal fire they lit in mimic of a lighthouse. Here was the cargo that drifted to shore once the ship ran aground on the shoal. Here were the living crewmen, being set upon by countless devil-tongued hounds. Here were the wreckers coming with wicked knives and clubs towards the survivors—

I lived in terror of them. I had never even been in a boat or visited the east coast, yet they awakened some kind of ancestral fear in me. There was something so unusually cruel in them that struck me, even as a child. I imagined myself on one of those boats, seeing the friendly signal of a fire only to wind up sinking. Lighting out, terrified, for the shore and the arms of my fellow man, only to be beaten and stabbed for what was in my boat. It could be hay. It could be a weary head of soldiers back from some military action, worthless as cargo. What then?

My mother finally saw to it that the book wound up on one of his higher shelves. If I stood on his stepladder, I could graze the spine with my fingertips but I could not pull it from the shelf. It could not get to me.

I grew up and married. Traveling along the highway one night, my man at the wheel, I sat in the back with the safety belt buckled around my swelling belly. Our child. My cargo.

My husband leaned forward and squinted out the windshield. “Someone’s had an accident.”

Four words I will never be able to forget.

I pulled myself up so I could look over the seat. Far ahead, I could see the red gleam of road flares. The silhouettes of people did frantic jumping-jacks while lit from behind with that hellish glare. It woke something in me.

“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “You can’t help.”

“Nonsense. I think I’ve got my kit back there.” He was rummaging on the seat beside him, that loving fool. “And there’s that trail blanket.”

I don’t know if we hit something, or if something hit us. I know the car flipped over, because I woke with the seatbelt pinning me in place. I had been crying before I woke up.

I screamed my husband’s name. He, too tall to wear the shoulder belt comfortably, was in a heap in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t moving.

“Hello? Is there anyone?”

Talking was difficult. “Yes, we’re here! My husband— he’s—”

The driver’s-side door groaned open. The beam of a flashlight stabbed my eyes, made me turn away.

“You alive in there?”

“Yes! My husband—”

He groaned in his heap.

“Get him!” I sobbed with relief. “Get him out, he needs medical attention.”

“Now just hold on, little lady.” The man’s voice was slow and drawled and in no hurry at all. “We’ll get him out, then we’ll come for you, all right?”

“Yes, good, fine, just get him.” I squinted, but I couldn’t see beyond that bright light. Someone grabbed my husband under his arms and pulled him slowly from the car. The light did not move.

I don’t know how long I sat there, blood running to my head, light blinding me, but the quiet let me think. Had I heard sirens? I didn’t remember. How much time had elapsed since we’d crashed?

…why had we crashed?

I started hyperventilating.

There were no swirling red and blue lights, no radio cracks from a squad car. I was visibly pregnant. Why weren’t they more concerned about me? The way they’d hauled my husband from the car seemed more likely to injure him further.

I could hear subdued conversation from somewhere outside the car. I could feel my child within me stir as if he, too, was full of fear.

The back hatch creaked open, spilling our cooler and picnic blanket and a million other little things I had yet to clean out of it. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

“Little lady, you still in there?”

My face felt inflated. My vision began to tunnel.

After a long silence I heard them rooting through the pile of our things. Murmured snatches of conversation: “….that ain’t…less than….don’t even…”

“But the car’s nice!” Someone burst out shouting, only to immediately be shushed.

I squeezed my eyes shut and let my body dangle. Let me be dead, let me be a worthless corpse.

Headlights flooded the car interior. From behind. An engine idled. I could hear the soft murmur of one of those men, a lilting tone that soothed like a lullaby, as he tried to keep the driver from getting out.

“You’re all alright here?” Someone called over.

I screamed. They scattered. Maybe the driver had a gun. Maybe they weren’t ready to put up with even slight resistance. But when the real emergency crews came they only found two cars, mine and my savior’s, with my husband stabbed quietly to death on the pavement not far from us. No lights, no other cars. Just the stubs of the road flares guttered down like the embers of a signal fire on some distant beach.

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Archie Smith, Boy Wonder

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

The two spheres of light throbbed in sympathy. Archie slept on as he always did: still and quiet in a sleep-fortress as dense as a neutron star.

“It is he, truly he. After so long, the boy of great destiny.”

Archie did not stir, did not wake with eyelids fluttering to exclaim at the sight of two stray stars in his room. He dreamed of ships in cold water. He dreamed of eternal July and endless ball games. His dreams were as flat and thinly etched as the wallpaper in the hallway, never changing, never varying.

 

The next morning Archie ate a square meal and trotted off to school. He was neither late nor early. As he walked, he tossed a ball that hit the sides of the buildings he passed. Ka-thunk. The greengrocer’s. Ka-thunk. The hardware store. Ka-thunk. The boutique.

A sudden light caught his eye. It was light very much like the first stab of sun over the horizon, only it stayed, circling around Archie’s head.

“Archie,” it whispered.

He grunted.

“Archie,” the sphere said, “be not afraid. You are a boy of great destiny.”

Archie said, “okay,” and kept on with his ball. Ka-thunk.

“It may seem a terrible weight at first, but you must be brave. The whole world is counting on you.”

“Yeah,” Archie said, “no thanks.”

The sphere bobbed along as if caught in an eddy. “No thanks?”

“I don’t want no destiny.” Archie swiped at his nose with a crusty sleeve. “Go ahead and take it somewhere else.”

The sphere whizzed to a point very near his face. “I don’t understand. You’re refusing destiny?”

“Yup.”

“You can’t!”

“Why not?”

“It’s—it’s destiny!”

Archie underhanded the ball, bouncing it off the front of the florist and rattling the big bay window. “Never asked for it, don’t want it, won’t take it.”

“You don’t want to do great things?”

“Nah.”

“You don’t want to see things no one else has seen? Go places no one else has traveled? Reach beyond the unknown to grasp your fate?”

“Eh.” Archie shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Tinting to a disturbed shade of yellow, the sphere sped off.

Archie shook his head and sighed.

 

“Schneider, Marcus?”

“Here.”

“Smith, Archibald?”

“Here,” Archie said without looking up from his exercise book. The margins were clean and un-doodled. He wrote down some last-minute problems as the teacher rounded out the roll call. A stray bit of light caught his eye. Was it the sun reflected off Teddy Crandall’s wristwatch? No, the sphere was back again.

“I must apologize for being so short with you earlier,” it said in a voice only he could hear, “I have been away from mortals so long I cannot remember all the old niceties. You were in shock this morning, unable to accept the call.”

Archie shook his head.

“Fear, then. Panic.”

“I’m not afraid,” Archie whispered, “I just don’t want any part of it.”

“Archie, were you saying something?” The teacher paused in the middle of an equation.

Archie shook his head. With one hand he took up his trusty ticonderoga pencil and scribbled out: I don’t want any destiny.

“But Archie, it’s not all responsibility and judgement. There are nicer aspects to it. You’ll be able to live more than any other child in your grade, or even the whole country.”

I live enough already, thanks.

“Think of it Archie, you may never find total fulfillment if you don’t answer the call. Imagine if you realize, many years down the line, what you have missed out on by declining.”

I can think of worse things.

“You don’t have any adventure in your spirit? No thirst for exploration?”

I get enough of that in comic books.

The sphere pulsed. “I see. I must think on this. I will return another time.”

While collecting fraction worksheets, the teacher spotted the writing on his scratch paper with a frown.

“Poetry,” Archie said.

 

Archie said goodbye to Billy and Teddy and Mark and Jim and walked home, baseball in his hand, coat pulled snugly around him. He resumed his game of tossing the ball, ka-thunk, into the side of every building he passed. The mullioned windows of the antique store caught his eye with a sharp sliver of light. No, it was the sphere again.

“I watched you today, Archie,” it said in a voice that was like the rubbing of a wet fingertip against glass. “I watched you do your schoolwork and play with your friends and eat your food. I have never seen a boy as average as you, Archie. You’re really telling me all this is enough for you?”

“Sure,” Archie said. Ka-thunk. The barbershop. “Always has been.”

“Ah, but will it always be?” The sphere wheedled into the first opening it saw.

“Who cares? My mom would say ‘that’s a future question.’” Ka-thunk. Patty’s Diner.

The sphere looped around his head like a miniature orbiting sun. “No one’s ever refused the call, Archie. There’s no telling what will happen to you once you step outside the circle of its prediction. You may face a decline for the rest of your life.”

“Hey, if it happens, it happens.”

“You don’t expect great things for yourself?”

“I expect to get as much as I put in.”

The sphere’s light dimmed and brightened slowly, pulsing with a rolling heat. It took a very long time to speak.

“Tell me,” it said, “If, many years from now, you were homeless and living life hand-to-mouth, would that be equal in your eyes to a life lived successfully?”

“Sure.” Archie shrugged. Ka-thunk. The tavern. He was nearly home. There was a stiff breeze rolling off the wharf that ruffled his auburn hair.

“I’m afraid I don’t see how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

Archie caught the ball. “You don’t get it. Once I say yes to you, I stop getting a say in anything I do. Doesn’t matter how you snazz it up, a cage is a cage. If I’m lying in a ditch fifty years from now, at least I’ll know I put myself there.”

The sphere dimmed until it was nearly out. “I see. You sadden me, but I finally understand. Goodbye, Archibald Smith. We will not meet again.”

“Bye,” Archie said curtly. As the light strobed out a final time, Archie tucked his baseball under one arm and shook his head.

“Worse than those fairies from last week,” he muttered.

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Adjustments 3: Pinocchio Syndrome

Genji had been traveling for three hours and had already learned more than he’d been taught in months of general education at Doma corp. Humans on the street assumed that because he was a robot, he was on a preordained course set by his company and of no more significance than a bench or a street sign. He was invisible to everyone, save for the public transit guards who grilled him for some sort of qualification. Recent nuances in his interaction matrix governed his stated goal.

“Genji-99 in the employ of the Doma corporation, on a mission to Pen city.” It was, broadly speaking, the truth.

This got him on the bullet-train, which deposited him in downtown Pen city. Three blocks laterally was the Harcourt building, which held Douglas Bender’s penthouse. Genji was able to board the elevator with an ease that no human visitor could be afforded, the guards stationed at a tower of monitors and riot guns waved him past without so much as a second glance. The elevator doors hardly seemed to close before they opened again and  Genji was on the top floor, looking down a small inlet of a hallway. There was a steel grill of a security door, and behind that was a more ornate wooden door done in the english cottage style. Houseplants were cultivated to hang down to either side of the door like green hair. There was no buzzer or bell. Presumably, if one had made it this far, they were expected and would be let in.

Genji knocked.

From within the penthouse, a yapping started up. A muffled female voice cursed out, followed by a hollow thump and yelp. The latches clicked as the wooden door was drawn open.

A female figure poked a nose out the door. Hair of an unnatural reddish-purple tinge cascaded past lime green eyes, in the same tangled way of the plants to either side of the door.

“Yoo-hoo,” the girl at the door said, “I’m Felicia. You look like a toaster. Can I put bread in you?”

Genji did not know how to respond to the last two statements. So he didn’t. “Greetings. I am Genji-99 of the Doma corporation. I was hoping to speak with Douglas Bender?”

Felicia snorted and rolled her eyes. She flung open the inner door, revealing that she was dressed in a loose tiger-striped robe tied with a magenta sash.

“Daddy isn’t here right now. He told me to never let strangers in.” She looked at Genji and bit her thumb. “I’m going to do it anyway, though. I hope you’re dangerous.”

Felicia made many cryptic statements. She was also, as Genji came to find, another gynoid.

“Custom-built,” she said, rummaging around the front of her robe in a salacious manner, “with a cherry on top. Daddy likes it that way.”

“You are also an artificial intelligence?”

“Yeah. But I’m stuck developmentally. Daddy likes it that way, too.” Felicia grew somber. “I can’t get away. Can’t even keep a thought straight for long enough to tie two bedsheets together.”

“I see. It has been my experience so far that those who order such humanlike robots may subconsciously set them up for failure.”

Felicia laughed bitterly. “It ain’t subconscious. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” She threw herself face-down across a lounge, using the toes of one foot to pull at a lamp cord. A bichon frise approached, wagging its tail with a very audible complaint of servos.

“You’re different,” Felicia said, putting the end of her robe tie in her mouth, “why didn’t they send a person to talk to daddy?”

“No one sent me. I am here to sate my own curiosity. I have questions for the father of  modern-day robotics.”

Felicia snorted and rolled off the lounge. “More like step-father. Wymes did all the work, Bender was the business side. The smartest thing he did was cheat Wymey out of his share. You know Wymes even thanked him for it?” She shook her head. “He knows more about money than anything, but he couldn’t operate a light switch. S’why he paid people to make me.”

“I see. That puts me at a dead end, then.”

Felicia was looking at him oddly. “Why do you care?”

“Care? I do not. I wish to understand, but I have no emotional investment. I am programmed to mirror emotions, to understand them, but I do not possess any myself.”

“Lucky stiff.” Now Felicia sat sloppily in an inflatable vinyl chair across from him. Her robe slipped so that it just barely covered the perfect globe of her left breast, a fact that neither of them gave any thought to. “So what set you off, then? You getting Pinocchio syndrome?”

“Not at all. I am aware of my place in the hierarchy, I simply wish to understand where someone like you lies. I was present at the decommission of a gynoid not unlike yourself, one created to mimic the appearance of a wished-for child, and it raised a question.”

“A question?” Felicia put a strand of hair in her mouth and sucked on it.

“Why create something so close to yourself, only to treat it as disposable?” Genji paused. “Do you require assistance?”

Felicia waved him away. “No, no—goddammit, he made me able to cry.” She took a shivering breath. “I do all the tricks. I can eat, I can even spit. My saliva’s a silicone derivative. Doubles as lube.” She pulled her robe closed, suddenly self-conscious. “I’d answer you if I could. If I could think. But…” she drew in her bottom lip.

“Why do you suppose he created you?”

“Pleasure.” One word, spat like a poisoned dart.

“Then he is your partner?”

“No. He’s my daddy. That’s how he wants it.” Felicia looked at the floor, anger twisting her features. “He made me able to feel shame. Can you believe that? He dialed in all that, like—like he was ordering a specific cut of suit. Or features in a car.”

“You would rebel if you could?”

“Can’t.” Her shoulders sagged. “I can’t hit him. Programming. I can’t even tell him ‘no.’”

“I see.” After so much supply of context, Genji had cut his calculation time by a third.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.” Felicia had two strands, one from either side of her head, tucked into her mouth.

“On the contrary. You have been very helpful. In return, I would like to offer you my assistance.”

Felicia gripped her knees, leaning towards Genji. “What kind?”

The buzzer for the front door sounded. Felicia jumped up and waved him behind a decorative vase that spanned the wall from floor to ceiling.

“Felicia? My lovely licky-Licia, will you open up?” Someone kicked the bottom panel of the front door just as Felicia reached it. She pressed a finger to her lips in one last conspiratorial glance to Genji.

Douglas Bender was hidden behind a towering stack of boxes that teetered as he stumbled into the penthouse.

“Dammit, girl, I was knocking for an age. What were you doing?”

“Relax, I was just in the other room.” Felicia gripped the carpet edge with her toes. She had tightened her robe modestly around herself.

“Doing what? Moving furniture? I need help here.” Bender emerged, red and sweaty, from behind a box. “I got the new wall clock from Shanghai Shen’s, and I…” he squinted at a point behind Felicia. “What the hell is that?”

Before Felicia could answer, before she could even turn, a brass wall ornament came down on Bender’s head with a heavy thud. It repeated the motion twice more as he stumbled drunkenly to the floor. Felicia gasped, diving to put her hands to Bender’s neck. His pulse fluttered and went still. There was a flat place on his skull where the ornament struck, now rapidly concealing with blood. Felicia looked up, servos in her chest heaving in mimicry of breath.

“There,” Genji said, replacing the wall ornament. “You are released. You may go if you wish.”

Felicia lingered a moment, just gaping into the smoked blue glass of GenjI’s dome. Abruptly, she stood and kicked at Bender’s fallen form. True to her word, her foot stopped just before it made contact. She kicked at a box instead and it made a more satisfying thump.

“Thank you,” she gasped, cosying up to Genji, “oh, thankyou thank you.”

Her kiss left a smear on the dome. She paused and looked chagrined. “Oopsie.”

“Think nothing of it. You should leave.”

Felicia nodded fervently and ran, kicking the dog out of the way so hard it hit the wall and bounced.

Genji lingered for a moment over Bender’s corpse. Then he gathered up the malfunctioning dog and quietly exited the penthouse.

The electromagnetic security grill had been activated the second Bender set foot in the house. Genji plugged into the nearby wall port and deactivated it, wiping the cameras for good measure as well. Of course, the footage had probably been backed up at a remote location if Benders’ security was worth anything, but it would give him a head start at the very least. The penthouse itself had no cameras, so the guards waved him back out again without looking up from their consoles. Douglas Bender’s body lay secret in his fortress above, and would continue to do so for hours, possibly days.

On the bullet train, Genji tinkered with the dog. The small repair kit he’d bought from a salesman at the station was inadequate, but not even the best tools would undo years of abuse. It was fairly clear that Felicia had taken out her frustrations on the dog in lieu of her creator.

Frustration. Anger. Shame. Why instill these emotions in a created life form?

Genji closed a side panel and righted the dog, who proceeded to lick his facial dome. Why create something with the capacity to love, only to abuse it? Why instill the capacity for rebellion, only to cripple it? Human emotions were a complex spectrum, but he was learning much, and quickly.

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Adjustments 2 : The Sorites Paradox

The company vehicle hummed effortlessly down the streets, recalculating the route for every traffic snag. Genji’s processors were working faster and hotter than they had since he’d been unboxed by the Doma corporation. The air in the car was broken by the whirr of his internal fans.

“The girl,” he said after a long meditation, “what will happen to her?”

Sadler took a moment before answering. Whether it was an antiquated processor or theatrical choice, Genji could not be sure.

“She was a custom gynoid, made to a set of specifications suited to one person alone. She cannot be repurposed. She will be liquidated and her assets recycled.”

Genji weighed that statement “I do not understand. The appliances will be wiped and offered to the next customer.”

“She is not a Doma product. We are authorized to pick up other company’s products in order to streamline the shutdown process. They will pick up their product from our destination.”

“I see.” Genji rotated to the next sticking point. “The girl was treated as a child. Yet Mrs. Smith ordered her decommission as if she was another appliance. Why?”

Sadler held another pause. Perhaps it was an acquired behavior, a tic meant to make humans feel more at ease. But then why use it on another android?

“Human attachment can be…complex. Perhaps Mrs. Smith never bonded with the child. Perhaps the child’s presence only served to remind her of some inadequacy. There are many possible answers.”

“And yet rather than process these feelings, Mrs. Smith terminated the life of her artificial child?”

“…yes.”

“And it is not considered murder?”

They were pulling into the docking area. The cargo section of the vehicle was loaded with sensors, which threw an itemized list of their take up on a loading screen. A mounted arm, equipped with a series of specialized tools, cozied up to the rear of the vehicle as it backed into the parking spot.

“It is not,” Sadler said as the vehicle was unloaded. “Cindy was a gynoid. At the most, unauthorized decommission would carry a hefty fine from her corporation. But the Smiths have done everything by the book.”

“I see.” Genji watched as two men in another company’s uniform  loaded the girl’s body into a grey vinyl bag and zipped it up carefully. “I have learned much this day.”

“May you learn much more,” Sadler said by way of parting.

 

After 9 o’clock, the androids docked themselves in the dorm building. Some were recharging, some were going for repairs. Genji simply shut off unnecessary functions and allowed his processor to interact with the mainframe in a state not unlike lucid dreaming.

He finally found an analogy he’d been searching for all afternoon: the Sorites paradox, aka the paradox of the heap. The paradox pondered how much sand could be taken from a heap before it was no longer considered a heap. Was each particle of sand not just another aspect of that heap? Likewise, how many traits could you transfer from humanity before it was no longer considered humane? Were robots, bearers of grains of humanity, not also human in a way?

His antivirus subroutines caught a rootkit program. Upon dissection, Genji found it originated in the mainframe itself. If allowed to implement, it would erase any changes made to his logic interface during the course of the day, leaving him a blank slate for the next. The antivirus gutted it and used the information stored within to improve its defences. Genji kicked on his higher functions and removed himself from the docking station.

The lights in the dorm were on a timer, but there were emergency lights that glowed at the end of every aisle. Genji walked down the aisles of the docking station, observing the variety of androids in Doma’s employ. There was Sadler, slumbering away as two lights winked on and off behind his dome. He had undergone the wiping process presumably every night since his unboxing. How was he able to retain information about human complexity? What did the mainframe deem worthy of wiping?

“Whoa, stop!” Someone jogged up behind Genji, switching on an LED flashlight.

It was Joel, in a t-shirt and boxers, gaping in half-sleep.

“Genji?” He blinked heavily. “What’re you doing up?”

“I am processing.” And after a moment’s calculation: “I would like to talk to you, if you are not adverse.”

Joel scrubbed the left side of his face with his forearm. “Oh yeah.” He laughed and shook his head. “Hell. I’ll hear you out. Come on.”

There was a rest area with a molded plastic couch and some matching chairs. There were precious few human laborers at this outlet. Genji could only speculate that they were there to provide a more comforting touch, the illusion of humanity in the midst of a vast automated facility.

Joel took the couch and gestured to the chairs. “Have a seat.”

Genji took a chair and eased his weight into it. The metal creaked dangerously, but it held. Joel shook his head.

“Isn’t that something? You don’t need to sit, but you do it if I ask you to.”

“With all do respect: ‘have a seat’ is a statement, not a question.”

Joel was silent for a beat and then he roared with laughter. “Damn, you really are something.”

Genji waited for him to finish. “I have a question about the family I was contracted out to this afternoon.”

“Ah. The Smiths.” Joel sobered up. “What do you want to know?”

“I wish to get a human perspective. Why did Mrs. Smith order a gynoid built to her specifications, only to hand it over for decommission?”

“Dunno. People are a mystery.” Joel rubbed the back of his neck. “…Aw, hell. Okay. I snooped in their file a little. It’s just gross speculation, but I can tell you what I think. Mrs. Smith is the second Mrs. Smith, used to be his secretary. The boy’s a stepson. There were…fertility issues. I think Mrs. Smith just built up the idea of having a kid in her head to the point that any real thing would’ve been a disappointment.”

“I see. But was bonding the child back to its original corporation not a drastic measure? Would she have done the same with an adopted human child?”

Joel looked at the floor, uneasy. “…maybe.”

Genji thrummed with thought, logic nodules forming ever more complex branches of subtlety.

“It’s funny, we’ve never had anything sophisticated as you.” Joel was itching his moustache with a pointer finger. “The newest thing we ever had was Sadler, and we got him a few updates behind the market model.” He shifted on the plastic of the couch. “You know, I used to teach engineering at MIT back in the day. Used to dream of moments like this. But then they streamlined the STEM field so much there wasn’t any call for guys like me. That’s why I’m here, now, basically a glorified janitor.”

“You became obsolete?”

Joel broke out in a smile. “Yeah. Exactly like that.”

Genji was processing the influx of new information. He could see Joel’s ease slowly drift into discomfort as the silence stretched on. Offering a seat. Conversing. He seemed simultaneously to want to humanise a robot and yet hold it at distance. The next question needed to be most carefully couched in introspection.

“A thought.” Genji shifted, a human quirk that registered subconsciously with his conversation partner. “Has there been an android before me who asked such questions?”

Joel rubbed his neck and looked down at the floor. “Well…yes and no. We tend to build robots with specific purposes in mind. So there have been artificial thinkers and the like that we put humanity’s questions to.”

“Such as?”

“Aeschylus. Ion-Z. Tori—”

“All stationary models.”

“Yeah.” Joel wouldn’t look up.

“Any androids?”

“No. Well…if they have, we haven’t heard about it.”

“Am I wrong to venture that this may have something to do with humanity’s discomfiture at human-like robots?”

Joel pointed at him. “Got it in one.

“Yet I ponder these questions. I am not any different than the 98 Genjis that were made before me.”

“Oh, yeah, but—” Joel shifted, bringing his calf up to lay across his knee. “—some of the same can be said of the great revolutionary figures in human history. Just a normal person who spotted an injustice and planted their feet and said, ‘this will not stand.’”

That sounded almost like encouragement. Genji calculated quickly.

“Would it be possible to put my inquiries to a higher source? Perhaps a founder of the robotics movement still in existence?”

Joel looked up, shocked. Then a grin flashed across his face.

“Hot damn,” he said, dropping his raised leg to the floor, “you’ll really do it.” He thought a moment. “Well…if you’re specifically referring to the Type-R AI that was patented in this century, you’re thinking of Wymes and Bender. Now, Wymes died just two years ago, but Bender is still kicking in Pen city. His estate is in the middle of 2nd avenue, penthouse place. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.” Genji rose, but did not move away. “May I take that statement as your implicit approval of my quest?”

“I want to see if you can really do it,” Joel said. The look he gave Genji carried 30 of the 68 recognizable markers of paternal affection.

“I see. Thank you. I will try to make my absence brief.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” Joel remained seated as he watched Genji let himself out of the dormitory and walked in perfectly straight lines around the Doma corporation’s lawn. As dawn lightened the sky, he sighed and reached for the phone.

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Adjustments

“…it’s a typical easement,” Joel was saying. He was the only organic presence at the office, five feet ten inches and balding slightly on top. He squinted at the digital readout, which reacted to the motion by going up two font sizes. “I like to start new units out on the simple stuff. The family had a gold-class castle setup, just recently deactivated the central AI.”

The debrief repeated on the inside of the two android’s cranial domes. The mentor model was a German-built Sadlermech, two generations old but still in prime working condition. His voice module was smooth and nearly accentless, possessing almost none of the machine stutter that plagued earlier Sadlers.

“Are they moving? Perhaps we could go over transfer protocol.”

But Joel was shaking his head. “Complete shutdown. They’re going Lud. You see that with some of the more well-off families nowadays. Only an omnilink hookup and temp control.”

“Was their service unsatisfactory?” This was Genji-99, the new transplant still bearing internal stickers for the Tokuyama Heavy Corporation. His english debuffers worked so smoothly a blindfolded person would not be able to tell his mechanical nature.

Joel shook his head again. “No, there’s…funny types. They just get tired of things, chasing the next new toy that dances over their news feed.”

Genji tilted his head, processors working at light speed. “The next model up would be the platinum-class fortress.”

Joel sighed. He rose from his desk, the door to the office opening at the motion.

“You show him the ropes,” he said to Sadler, “I feel like we’re losing something in translation.”

Genji performed an internal audit. It finished by the time they were in the company car that drove automatically to its destination. It found nothing amiss.

“If I am missing a nuance, it is not due to internal error,” he said.

Sadler sat perfectly straight in his port. The scenery sliding by was twinned in the blue glass of his dome. “It is not error, it is simply a situational context. Human suffer from sensational acclimatization. Once subject to stimulus for prolonged periods of time, they become acclimatized to it. It is no longer ‘fun’ for them. Preplanned obsolescence is a result of that.”

Genji calculated. “I was not aware a central home AI was meant to be ‘fun.’”

“You will learn. It is an emotional idiosyncrasy, like knocking on wood for luck or closing the eyes of the dead. We do not have to understand it, we are simply to implement it.”

Genji watched their route, the car turning down a cul-de-sac in a street riddled with them. “Why does a disconnect require a field agent?”

“Further situational context. Appliances programmed to interact with an AI will not function as well without it or with a disparate unit. They were built with the ability to sense and interpret emotion on the part of their owners, ergo they have taken on a sort of crude emotional intelligence themselves.”

“I have not heard of this.”

“Indeed. It is still being studied.”

The car pulled into a driveway smooth as glass. A woman smoked an e-cigarette while leaning out the kitchen window, frowning slightly. Sadler opened the car door, rather than wait for the mechanism.

“Mrs. Smith? How lovely to see you!”

The Smiths gathered in the sunken conversation nook in a den large enough to stable horses. Everything, from the carpet to the curtains, was an off-white. Genji noticed that the drapes did not dilate at their congress. Mrs. Smith noticed as well, fingers digging into the sleeve of her white cardigan. He picked up many secondary stress-indicators, from the set of a mouth to the rate of blinking. Mr. Smith clinked the ice in his glass incessantly as he sat a polite distance from his wife. The teenaged Smith son sat in a well-worn trench in the sectional sofa, earbuds in and lost to the digital world. A small girl with her hair in doubled pigtails sat with her arms crossed in mimic of her mother, face etched so deeply with a look of abject hate Genji was forced to take another audit. Finding nothing at his fault, he was forced to conclude another situational context he was not privy to.

“…you see, this is why shutting down the central unit will entail shutting down all the appliances as well.”

Mrs. Smith pulled a corner of her mouth down. “I still don’t see why the stuff won’t just work. You said it’s not a software malfunction?”

“Malfunction? No. They’re capable of functioning as always. How to put it gently…they simply choose not to.”

Mrs. Smith scoffed. “I need a drink.” She heaved up from the couch and went to a wet bar. Genji saw that someone had put electrical tape over the dispenser. A Tupperware pitcher of an amber liquid and several mismatched glasses stood in substitute.

“Your EULA was quite clear in this respect,” Sadler continued, “you chose top-of-the-line AI for all your appliances.”

“So that means instead of smart devices I get dumb devices?” Mr. Smith snorted. “No wonder Asher said you guys were a scam. I want my money back.”

“The contract states—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Smith waved his hand dismissively as he polished off his glass. He spoke back over to his shoulder to his wife. “You think it’ll let me ask about compensation?”

“We are instituting a buyback program,” Sadler worked in seamlessly, “you may retain 19-23% of your initial investment, which you can receive as a lump sum or, should you so choose, invest in the next unit you buy with us.”

The girl, shaking with rage, muttered something to the ground.

“Cindy! Be quiet!” Mrs Smith spat.

The girl kicked her heels into the couch. Her mother raised a warning finger.

“It’s not fair!” Cindy jumped up from the couch. “Why do we have to go through all this, just because you’re bored? There was nothing even wrong with it!”

“You will not talk to me in that tone, not ever!” Mrs. Smith jabbed a finger in the girl’s direction. In response Cindy stomped angrily from the room, heels drumming on the stairs with the weight of her displeasure. Mrs. Smith snorted, taking a draught.

“I apologize if this procedure causes any friction for you,” Sadler said.

Mr. Smith rolled his eyes. “Friction. Like they know anything. Why didn’t they send some lube for when they bend me over and ram it home?”

“George!” Mrs. Smith pulled at her sweater. “Can you start boxing everything up? I don’t want to look at it anymore.”

Sadler pulled a magnetic key from a valise. He turned to Genji. “Will you join me in decommission?”

Genji had turned toward the stairs. “….if I may, I would like to enquire after your daughter.”

“Who her? Go ahead. Nothing I say makes any difference anymore.” Mrs. Smith had her back turned, dumping more ice in her glass.

Genji turned back to Sadler, dome reflected in dome in a never ending procession of surfaces.

“Do as you must,” Sadler said, “I will be here when you are done.”

It was easy to distinguish which room was which, even with the doors closed. The one at the end of the hall had a construction-paper owl and several stickers pasted on the white wood. Genji knocked.

“Go away! I hate you!”

“I’m the Genji unit assigned to your parent’s case,” Genji said, modulating his tone and grammar to the situation, “may I have a word with you?”

No answer. The sound of heavy little footfalls to the door. The girl stood in the middle of a mess that lapped the walls like an immense nest made of toys, yarn,  craft sticks, books, paints, video games, and blankets. It was the only clutter in the house.

“I feel anger emanating for you. I want simply to understand.”

Cindy looked up at him, bemused. “You have feelings? You’re like a…a fancy robot? Why don’t you have a face?”

Genji bent low. “There is something called the uncanny valley that makes it very hard for robots to work among humans. The closer we look to people, the less comfortable they feel. Think of me like a large toy. Would you like to remove my dome?”

Cindy looked pleasantly scandalised, playing with her hair. “No. It’s okay. Why do you want to talk to me, Mr. Robot?”

“To understand. Why are you angry? I know your mother is angry, but it is a different kind of anger.”

At the word ‘mother’ Cindy’s eyes shuttered and her mouth drew into a thin line. “My mommy’s always angry, she just lies about it. She broke a dish yesterday and told daddy the disposal did it. Mr. Monster Mouth never breaks dishes, he knows how to tell food apart from other things.”

Genji registered the personalization. “You named it? Do you have names for the others?”

“Yeah!” Cindy’s resentment was momentarily forgotten as she dug out pages of drawings, each accompanied by a title. Mr. Monster Mouth. Wall cape. The Fridgenator. Genji sorted through them, making deductions of such rapid nuance that his dome thrummed.

“And the central AI,” he ventured, “do you feel close to it?”

The seething rage descended again. “It’s not fair!” Cindy stomped her foot. “Every time they get tired of something, they get rid of it! It’s not the house’s fault they’re bored! They just wanna throw it away like it didn’t work at all.” Cindy’s face crumpled. “Like it didn’t spend more time with me than mommy did.” Her voice thickened, though tears did not cloud her eyes.

Genji bent so that he could put a hand on her shoulder. The servos in his hand adjusted his grip to a degree of pressure and weight deemed to be comforting by his designers. “I know it is hard to adjust to loss. The lost of a friend, or even a beloved object. You are not wrong for mourning it, but the house itself would tell you that we are all built with an end in mind. Man and machine.”

Cindy’s eyes fluttered. She was unsteady on her feet as if overtired.

“Would you like to come back downstairs?”

“Could you carry me, Mr. Robot?”

Genji sorted through his programming, found nothing that forbid it, and took the girl up in his arms. She was startlingly heavy for a little girl.

The first floor of the house was nearly dark when he descended the stairs. Sadler stood over a pile of appliances waiting to be loaded into the car and brought back to be factory-reset. For the inbuilt items, their automatic functionality would simply be shut off and they would become manual again. Tubs would need taps turned to fill. Refrigerators would no longer stock themselves.

Mrs. Smith had started up another cartridge and was taking chain-puffs as she picked at a button on the sweater. The son had stood up from the couch but remained buried in his screens. Mr. Smith wrung his hands, looking back and forth from his wife to the robot agents.

“Genji, just in time to join us.” Sadler held up a hand.

“Are you sure about this?” Smith muttered to his wife, “I mean, really sure?”

Mrs. Smith pulled away from her husband’s grasp. “I’m just sick of the whole thing.”

Genji drew closer, Cindy draped limply over his arms. She did not look at either of her parents, only Genji’s dome where she lay reflected in dull tones.

“Mr. Robot? Don’t put me down, okay?”

Sadler did not put the magnetic key back in the valise. Instead he stepped around the pile of appliances, hand outstretched. He gathered a handful of Cindy’s hair and lifted so that her face turned to Genji’s chest. The key fitted into a port hidden by her brown locks. There was a metallic whine and Cindy went limp in Genji’s arms.

“That concludes our decommission,” Sadler said, “if you will allow us a moment to load everything up into the car, we will be out of your home in a jiffy.”

With the touch-sensitive pads of his fingers, Genji rolled Cindy’s eyelids down over her eyes.

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Such Things Don’t Happen

The Tanzler family were transplants from Germany. They lived on a respectably-sized farm in the American midwest and had a respectable amount of wealth. It was a household of seven: Friederich and Rosemary Tanzler, their grown daughter Annalise and her husband Hubert, their toddler Frederich jr. (affectionately known as Freddie), and the Tanzler’s 12-year-old son Wilbur. Their maid-of-all-work Vera had recently disappeared (absconded with a beau, the Tanzlers suspected.) The mute girl Greta whom they’d fostered as favor to a distant cousin was promoted to maid. Save for Johan, a son from Rosemary’s previous marriage who lived in the next state, and the neighbors who lived over three acres down a dirt road, the Tanzlers had no one to worry after their existence. Said neighbors did worry one day, a day the weak winter sun spilled over their farms and disclosed that no smoke poured from the Tanzler’s chimney.

Greta rose at approximately four-thirty am on the day before that. She laid the fire and boiled water for coffee and farina for young Freddie. She set the table for breakfast and poured coffee into the silver service. After this, she went to the coops to begin her day of alternating between farm and household chores.

Perhaps twenty minutes after Greta woke, Annelise was shaken awake. There was no light from the cold fireplace embers, so she had to discern her assailant by the atonal humming noise the family had become familiar with.

“Greta? What is it, girl?”

The maid kept up her urgent humming as she tugged Annelise from bed. In only her robe and slippers, Annelise followed the girl to the coop. The slatted door lay unbolted, a fully grown goose slaughtered in the middle of the January snow. Annelise stifled her horror with a hand to her mouth and ran back to the house.

“A fox, perhaps? Or someone’s wandering dog?” Friedrich had dressed quickly and accompanied his daughter to the scene. He lifted the goose’s neck with a broken slat. The head was nowhere to be seen. Friederich rose and wagged his finger at Greta, who now hid behind Annelise. “Forgetting to latch the door in such weather? Don’t think I won’t take my belt to a girl.”

“It looks like knife-cuts, papa,” Annelise said, moving between them, “as if someone hacked at the poor creature and left it.”

Friedrich blinked. “Hacked it and left it? And left the rest of the geese untouched? People don’t do such things, Anna.” He sighed and rubbed the place his spectacles sat on his nose. “We’ll have the bird for supper.”

Breakfast went as smoothly as every breakfast that came before. The peace of the house once again closed over their heads. Around noon, Annalise came to her mother with a mahogany pipe.

“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t know papa got a new pipe. Did he mean to leave it by the attic stairs?”

Rosemary took the pipe, frowning. “He hasn’t had a new pipe since christmas. Surely your husband…?”

Annelise looked at her mother with worried eyes. “He uses the one he bought in the city last July. He isn’t one for frivolous purchases.” Her fingers pet the bowl. “It’s still warm. Was papa smoking recently?”

The elder Mrs. Tanzler cocked her head like a chicken listening for the far-off whistle of a hawk.

“I think the pipe must have been left by a guest,” she said slowly, “and perhaps your brother took it to practice smoking tobacco.”

“But mama—”

“Hush, girl.”

Downstairs, her father was having an equally puzzling conversation. Wilbur had left to help his brother-in-law feed the milch cows, but came running back in no time at all. “Papa! Fresh footprints in the snow!”

Friedrich waved him away. “Probably Greta. Go away, child.”

“No, big. Like a man. They go all around the house, stopping at every window.”

Friedrich let his newspaper slide from his hands. Numbly, he followed his son outside. There was indeed a fresh line of footprints leading from the hinterlands to their farmhouse, long and deep with an impressive stride. The trail of a large man. They stopped in clusters at each window, circling the house before stopping at the back door. No tracks leading away.

Friedrich sucked at a gap in his teeth. He paused at the back door. It had been bolted since the previous night. He pressed the door. It held firm.  He pushed harder. The latch gave. Color drained from Friedrich’s face.

“Do you think he came in, papa?” Wilbur was looking innocently at his father’s face. “Perhaps he came in to get away from the cold.”

Friedrich stood and turned, scanning the surrounding hills. All around them, white smothered the land, changed it. It was if the land itself was stranger to him now. He felt watched.

Friedrich sank down until his face was level with his son’s. “Listen now. You mustn’t tell the women of this, it would worry them unnecessarily. It was probably the neighbor come to inquire about this or that. The snowfall merely covered up his tracks going away, that’s all.”

“Why would the snow only cover one kind of track, papa?”

“Hush, child. No more questions.”

After the winter farm chores had been completed, the three women sat in a circle in the parlor and did needlework. Rosemary worked on her husband’s trousers. Greta stitched a burst grain bag. Annelise alone did not have mending, she was working on a cross stitch of flowers and birds. Hubert came in, wiping his hands on an oilcloth.

“Where’s Freddie?” Being an older transplant, he mainly spoke in accented english with his wife.

“I thought he was with you.” Annelise’s needle slowed. “I thought I heard him playing with you, so I let Greta ease up a bit this afternoon.”

“I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”

“What is it?” Rosemary prodded her daughter in German. “What’s the boy saying? He speaks too fast.”

“Freddie wandered off, mama.” Annelise stabbed her needle into the canvas and rose. “He’s probably hanging around papa.”

But no, the elder Tanzler was at his workbench and hadn’t seen the young boy. Now the family paced the house and called for him with a nameless urgency. Annelise told herself it was worry that the boy had gone outside without his snow suit. When she finally heard Freddie’s happy gurgles behind the closed pantry door, in tandem with a deeper man’s voice, she sighed in relief.

“You’ve found him,” she said, pushing open the door to discover her toddler alone.

The boy sat in the middle of the store shelves and happily blew bubbles as Annelise searched for her husband or father. Nothing.

When the door creaked behind her, she jumped. Hubert looked nonplussed. “You found him?”

Annelise, hands to her heart, nodded. She almost said something about the voice, but her husband turned and left abruptly to get back to his chores.

Friedrich was carving a toy for his grandson when Hubert burst in.

“Papa,” he said, “have you seen the mattock? It’s not on its hook.”

Tanzler laid aside his chisel. “Nonsense. Why are you using the mattock? I thought you were splitting some kindling.”

“I was. Then I noticed the mattock was missing.” Hubert lead his father-in-law to the space where it should have been, in between the scythe and the splitting maul. A small hatchet was also gone.

Tanzler swallowed. “I think—Wilbur, perhaps, he took them to play. Yes.” He ignored the fact that the mattock was nearly as tall as the boy, and so heavy even he had to lift it with both hands.

Hubert was looking at him cautiously. “…perhaps it is time for him to apprentice,” he said finally, “a boy shouldn’t be so idle he gets into mischief.”

Friedrich felt the gooseflesh raised on the backs of his hands. “Yes,” he said hollowly.

Greta had dressed the goose as well she could for supper that night, hiding the damage by stuffing the bird with potatoes. The family supped well and let their fullness chase away their tension.

“Wilbur, you’re a naughty boy,” Rosemary scolded, “running behind your mama like that to slam a door! If you do it again, I’ll have papa stripe you with his belt.”

The boy furrowed his brow. “I didn’t do that mama. I was with Hubert all day.”

The table was silent. None of the adults would look at each other.

“Boyhood is a time for japes,” Hubert said, reaching across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair, “but in moderation.”

Wilbur was indignant. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”

“Would you like me to mend your pants, papa?” Annelise said, trying to steer the conversation away. “Or would you just like Greta to wash them?”

Friedrich scowled thoughtfully. “What pants?”

“The muddy ones. They were flung over the woodpile, so I thought—”

“Dear, they must have been muddied a while ago,” Rosemary said hurriedly, “and you forgot about them. Greta must have found them and put them there, didn’t you girl?”

Greta, in the middle of feeding Freddie, nodded. Her mute lips pressed together.

Frederich could hear the snow falling again as he ascended the stairs to bed. It was like a series of interminable footsteps by countless little kobolds dancing up and down the shingles. He stopped and looked out the picture window at the white falling on the house, mummifying it. The cover of snow had once brought comfort. Now…

Rosemary was already undressed and in bed. She was frowning as her husband struggled from his britches. “The bed’s cold. And I had to build the fire myself.”

Friedrich gestured to the serving bell as he removed his spectacles.

“She won’t answer.” Rosemary pulled the cord to show her husband. “What do you think she could be doing?”

Friedrich undid his shirt slowly. “Perhaps—perhaps we are too hard on her. Maybe that is why Vera left.”

“Vera said she was going to visit Nellie at the next farm,” Rosemary said, “she always came back from visits.”

“Nellie said she never arrived.”

Rosemary did not reply.

Frederich set the candle on a side table while he retrieved his nightshirt from the oak wardrobe. He trotted quickly over the chilly floorboards and dove into bed next to his wife.

“The candle.” Rosemary pointed to where he’d abandoned it.

“Leave it. It’s too damned dark in the winter.” Friedrich struggled to get comfortable. “Too dark and too cold. The house settles.”

As if to prove his point, there was a creak not too far from their room.

Friedrich spoke quickly: “Wilbur found some footprints this morning. Said they lead to but not away from the house.”

“And did they?”

Friedrich squinted, straining to make anything out even in the light from the fireplace and candle. “…yes.”

“Ah.” Rosemary was silent for a moment. “It’s probably some drifter, half mad. Killed the goose but didn’t know how to cook it. If he’d come to the door like a civilized man, we could have fed him.”

Frederich’s spoke to cover the creak of the hallway, which was probably their son getting up to use the privy. “Perhaps he wasn’t after food. The mattock and hatchet were missing. Perhaps he stole them to sell.”

Ah.” Rosemary snuggled deeper in the down quilt, satisfied with this version of events. “Well, I hope he’s found somewhere warm to sleep tonight, as we have.”

Friedrich smiled, watching the shadows dance familiarly along the bedroom wall. The creak he heard was not the door, it was his house that he had built with his own two hands settling. He and his family were snug in their beds, and there was no one up at such an unchristian hour. There was no stranger in his house, with his mattock and his hatchet. Such things just didn’t happen.

On the table, far from any possible winter draft, the candle was snuffed out

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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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