The vid-phone screen fluttered as my bio-mom scrunched her face, a look I always equated to a dog affronted by the sudden trumpeting of its own fart. She meant it to appear playful, but I could still recognize the thinly veiled signs of underlying disdain. While we hadn’t seen each other in years, some things never changed.
“No, I don’t think so, Ryan. It’s been malfunctioning badly as of late. Your father has the bot recyclers coming for it next week,” she said.
My stomach tied in knots and the image on the screen blurred into a jumble of colors. I tried to play it off like it was no big deal, leaning against my chair and nodding as if I understood. But I didn’t. This was Jane we were talking about, not some meaningless heap of metal and wires. And though the years had shaven off those sentimental parts of me that would have demanded a repair or restoration, I still had to see her. One last time before the end.
“Could I visit her before you send her away?”
Confusion wracked my bio-dad’s face, as if I had spoken in a complicated form of Pig Latin instead of sober English. But since I didn’t explode into the fits of giggles he no doubt would have preferred, he eventually shrugged and consented. He told me they’d be out of town this weekend, but they would re-enable my fingerprints for the door sentry scanner if I wanted to let myself in. We said our perfunctory goodbyes, and then I cut the feed.
That Sunday, I drove alone to their apartment in the city, the same place where I grew up. The moment I stepped inside, nostalgia hit me with a surge of memories of that lost time, and I savored every one. The good as well as the bad.
# # #
In an era where parents often waited until retirement to have children, mine made the plunge in their early twenties. It’d be an understatement to say they weren’t prepared for the responsibility, and a little deluded of me not to assume my birth was little more than a prophylactic malfunction. Once their work shift ended for the day, they stayed out at all hours of the night, hitting clubs and bars and friends’ parties in turns. And when it was the weekend, they left earlier and stayed out later.
For the first few years of my life, my grandmother watched me. I’m told she was a good, loving woman. Large like a fridge packed with turkeys, with a heart overflowing with sympathy, kindness, generosity, and cholesterol. I can only assume the prior parts were true, but the latter was inarguable because that heart gave out by the time I turned three.
It was then my parents decided babysitting fees were too expensive, and immediately “invested” in a robot nanny–a J4N3 model. Robotic-Human Relations’ review called it, “The next best thing to mom and dad!” They were created to be more humanlike, “in order to foster an emotionally and physically healthy upbringing for children in their care.” A lazy parent’s dream.
To me, our J4N3 unit–or Jane, as I called her–lived up to the hype. Every night she read me stories until I was tired, and then sung me a lullaby to nudge me into sleep. When I was hungry she fed me. When I was scared, she kept watch as a silhouette in the dark, her head spinning 360 degrees to press her infrared beam into the darkest recesses of my room. I felt safe and loved when she was around. And unlike my parents, she always was.
# # #
I started kindergarten at five. Jane came with me on that cold, cloudy morning, and hugged me against the heat vents on her stomach. We stood in front of my classroom door under the breezeway, as the other children laughed and ran in the nearby playground.
My grade school was traditional in many ways. They didn’t believe in high-tech machinery that most schools purchased for recess. There were no holo-games, no virtual-environment generators, or interactive play bots. Just the kind of equipment that encouraged muscle growth: jungle gyms, slides and swings.
Regardless, I had no interest in playing because, frankly, the other children scared me. By then, I was used to Jane’s quiet and composed demeanor, her every movement precise and elegant. By contrast, the children screamed and ran and moved with unpredictable spasticity. Picture a bunny thrown into a kennel with slavering, street-hardened dogs. I was that bunny.
I stared at them from the comfort of Jane’s side, hoping to have nothing to do with them before the day was through. But hope soon vanished when the bell rang and Anthony Hart–a black haired, pale-skinned boy with a pug nose–sidled up behind us with his parents. His eyebrows knit and the edges of his lips drooped while he scrutinized Jane and me.
“Where are your mommy and daddy?” he said.
I pointed to Jane.
“That’s not a mommy or daddy. That’s just a stupid robot.”
His parents shielded their grins with their hands, before bathing him with eye-beams of utter devotion. Leave it to parents to overlook a goblin at its worst. As for me, the comment was so unexpected, and so far from my own opinion, I was too shocked to respond. I only hugged Jane harder, wishing all the while that a stray meteorite was barreling toward the earth–sleek and round and unblemished, save for Anthony’s name emblazoned on its surface.
And with that, the precedent had been set. If I hadn’t wanted to play with other kids before, I certainly had no intention of doing so afterward. When Jane left, I cried every minute until she picked me up at noon. It wasn’t too long before the other kids started calling me crybaby and robot-boy behind the teacher’s back. I hated the prior, but the latter I wore like a badge of honor.
# # #
I met Charles and Isaac–two boys that lived in my apartment building–when I was seven. It was easy to make friends with them because they loved robots, and envied me for having one. Since the hallways of the apartment building were off limits, and we weren’t allowed in the street, we often hung out on the roof. It was a dangerous, flat stretch of pebbles and tar, bordered by a thin lip of plastered wood. No sane mother or father would’ve allowed their children to play there, but neglectful parenting had its privileges.
On a clear night, we could see the international moon colonies that spanned the surface of that ancient satellite, like a series of circuits and chips on an enormous motherboard. We could even see the US Space Fleet’s shipyard in orbit, a dense jungle of crafts so plentiful and distant they seemed to merge into a jagged globe. Some days ships running training maneuvers passed into the Earth’s atmosphere and strafed the city with holo-ammo. The display was intense. We lay on our backs and watched the white, pink and blue volley, which was always followed by holographic smoke from the end-result’s damage simulation.
And if we got bored of that, we played tag.
One time, Isaac and Charles jumped out from behind one of the solar powered air-conditioning units closest to base. Since I was it, I ran after them. Unfortunately, the air duct rising above the surface of the roof was easy to miss. I tripped over it and smashed my forehead into the thin edge of a receiver dish. They ran off the moment they saw blood.
The memory of that lonely, slow descent back to my apartment remains cloudy to this day. What I do recall is that when the door slid open, my bio-mom was the first to see me. She took one look and scowled.
“Michael, your son hurt himself!” she yelled over her shoulder.
My bio-dad came out of the master bedroom in the middle of tightening a tie around his collar. “Damn it. We’re going to be late! Is it bad?”
He grabbed me hard on the chin and forced my head left and right, examining my forehead. “Where the hell were you playing?”
I didn’t answer. Once the trickle of blood came dangerously close to my bio-dad’s hand, he jerked it away with a disgusted grunt. Their response was immediate.
She came out of her recharging nook and scanned my face with a strip of projected light. When she processed the extent of the damage, she bent down in front of me and put her hands on my shoulders.
“Oh sweetie. It’s going to be okay,” she said. And then, to my parents, “He may have a concussion. He’ll need to see a doctor.”
“You know the way. Take him,” my bio-dad said.
Jane grabbed a rag and applied it to my wound with firm pressure, all but carrying me as we hurried to the elevator, to the ground floor, and then to the garage. After she strapped me in, she turned on the car’s emergency mode. Flashing red lights flooded the roof and hood, the car’s fusion-powered engine revved, and we took off.
The closest emergency room was twenty minutes away going the speed limit. But with her inbuilt night vision, GPS and master-status driving program, we made it there in half that time. We waited in the emergency room, among parents crowded around sick children, or children collapsed in the shadow of sick parents. A haunting contradiction to what we represented, though neither Jane nor I knew better.
It took ten minutes before a tall blonde male nurse called us in. He brought us into a sterile white room, laid me on a bed, and grabbed a handheld diagnostic machine from the silver panel attached to the wall. After a scan, it beeped and blinked green.
“No brain damage. Shouldn’t take long to fix,” he said.
He opened a drawer and took out a plain white tube. Squeezing out a dollop of metallic gel, he applied it to my wound with a gloved finger. All the while, Jane held my hand and sung to me. I closed my eyes, listening to the soothing sound of her voice, and quickly fell asleep.
By the time I awoke, the wound had closed the numb ache of my brain had vanished. Eventually, the nurse returned to check on my progress.
“How are you feeling?” he said.
“I’m fine… Thank you.”
He received the gratitude and smiled in response. But I mostly meant it for Jane.
# # #
Things began to wind down between Jane and me by my seventeenth birthday. I no longer needed a babysitter or a nanny. And since she had already taught me to drive, the last milestone on my way to adulthood, there wasn’t much I needed from her. The only time she left her recharging nook was to act as a sort of combination maid and butler for my parents.
That was also the year I started dating Kathy Brand, a pixyish girl with deep brown eyes, smile-dimples and a wave of shoulder-length black hair. Soon after our sixth-month anniversary, she started talking about getting married. And if that wasn’t already as intense as searchlights, she even started writing her signature hyphenated with my surname.
At the end of our senior year, I asked her to prom. Our friends all met at my place on prom night and used the bedrooms to get ready. Since Kathy came fully dressed, and I had dressed hours before they arrived, we waited for them on the couch in the living room. We talked about prom, mostly: who was going to be there, what events the organizers had planned, and how we wanted our pictures done. I think… Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention. I kept waiting for the perfect time to introduce her to Jane. She had already met my bio-parents, but that wasn’t good enough by far.
Without explanation, I took her to Jane’s nook in a wall of the apartment’s wash room. It was dark, lit only by the purple indicator light signifying Jane was charged. Our palms were damp when we stepped inside, and Kathy avoided eye contact with a coy smile.
She shook her head and put a finger against my lips, slipped her arms around my neck and raised herself to her toes. And for a while, we kissed. At first I let it happen, enjoyed the warm waxy feel of her cheap lipstick, and the softness of her lips. But a wave of guilt coursed through my chest, easing my fluttering heart into calm. I pulled back, and held her by her shoulders.
“Actually, I wanted to show you something. Something… very important to me.”
She became even more nervous than before, a look which soon shifted into a knowing expression. She nodded, and moved a hand down to my inner thighs.
“Jane,” I yelled, more out of shock than anything else. Jane came alive, stepped forward and examined us both. “I want you to meet someone. Her name is Kathy. She’s my girlfriend.”
Jane held out her hand.
Kathy threw me a disconcerted look and limply touched Jane’s hand with her finger tips. “Uh, hi.” Afterward, she moved in close and whispered in my ear, “How about you put your toy away and see where this leads?”
I laughed. There wasn’t anything particularly funny; the suggestion was reasonable, save for her mistaking my intentions. She must have written the laughter off as nerves because she resumed our previous position. For a brief moment I almost went with it. By then, we were both still virgins, hadn’t done so much as over-the-clothes caressing. And I was a boy like any other, curious to a fault. But with Jane standing behind us, any carnal desire shrunk away–in every way imaginable–before it could truly get started.
“No, she’s why I brought you here,” I said, pointing to Jane.
“You wanted me to see your robot?”
“She’s not just my robot. She’s my… mom.”
Kathy gave a wry smile, as if this were some sort of joke. But seeing the seriousness of my expression, she threw her hands up in disbelief.
“You took me to a dark room at the back of your house, alone, to show me a robot?”
“What does that even mean?”
“Forget it!” I yelled, and stormed out.
For the rest of the night I distanced myself from Kathy. Didn’t say a single word to her in the limo where we sat side-by-side, as we drove to the Andromeda Needle. And when we got to the ten thousand-foot high Glass Ballroom on the top floor, with a panoramic view the surrounding city, I sulked on a chair by the southern window.
Kathy tried to talk with me a few times; I brushed her off. She ended up in the lady’s room with her closest friends, while their boyfriends joined me in my gloom. That portion of the night is best summed up by the conversation I had with my buddy at the time.
“Nice going, Ryan, real smooth maneuver,” said Stan.
“I just realized Kathy’s not the girl for me, okay?”
“Cynthia said she purchased a transparent camisole and matching panties for tonight. Said if I played my cards right, I might get to see them. I don’t know what the hell a camisole is, but I sure as hell wanted to find out!”
“Sorry, huh? You couldn’t have decided she wasn’t your type tomorrow morning, prom-night exploration a successful expedition, like any decent guy would?”
The night fizzled into gray and dismal silence, punctuated by the whooping laughter of other attendees and their dates. At one point, someone spiked the punch with ethanol. There was vomiting, a few cases of blindness, but no deaths. The following afternoon Kathy broke up with me over a text.
# # #
The next year I went away to college. Before leaving, I told Jane I would keep in contact as often as possible. It wasn’t an intentional lie, just the way things worked out. College took a lot out of me. After finishing a forty-hour work shift, sitting through fourteen hours of classes, going on dates and hanging out with new friends, there was barely time to sleep.
During my sophomore year I met a girl named Lisa Howell. We dated a few months before I told her about Jane, and she accepted the story without a sniff. She even thought it made sense. (In fact, being a psych major, nothing seemed to surprise her much). That’s when I realized I was falling in love.
Lisa and I got married after our graduation and moved to Towering Oak, a small city three hours away from my bio-parents. Four years later, my son John was born and Lisa started working as a full-time family therapist. As for me, I landed a job at Astronomical Computers as a sales rep. I wasn’t helping to build robots, like I’d always wanted, but helping to sell them was good enough for me.
That was the year my bio-parents video-phoned me for the first time since I moved out. They said they wanted to be a part of my life again, and to get to know Lisa and John better. They said they were sorry for how they treated me over the years, didn’t bother to rationalize their behavior, but did make a point to say they had “grown up” since then.
Toward the end of the conversation, my parents told me they wanted to move closer. They’d already chosen a place a mile across town, if only I agreed. I said okay. And then, of course, I asked if they were bringing Jane.
# # #
Jane was stuffed seamlessly into the recharging nook when I stepped into the apartment’s wash room. She looked so worn and fragile, hardly the perfect figure of motherhood I’d held in my heart for the last twenty-six years. A thin layer of dust collected on the surface of her medical grade silicone skin. And there was a tiny gash on her shin that exposed the bright silver of her underlying metal alloy muscles.
“Hi…” I tried to say mom, but the word wouldn’t pass my lips. “Jane.”
A quick burst sounded out, like a computer booting up. Not a person, a robot–a thoughtless thing whose only semblance to humanity was their shape and pre-programmed approximation of human behavior. But despite knowing this, my heart fell when she stepped forward, scanned my face and said, “Identify yourself.”
Her voice was as gentle and sweet as ever, though with a crackle audio flaw that denoted an aged and failing vocal-chip.
“It’s me, Ryan.” She showed no sign of understanding. The malfunction was worse than my parents had indicated.
“How old are you, Ryan?”
I hesitated. This would be our last moment together and whatever words came out of my mouth would determine how she treated me. If I indicated I was an adult, she would respond in a polite, respectful tone befitting an owned thing addressing its owner. If I said I was a teenager she would achieve some of that motherly behavior that had meant so much to me, but would remain hands-off. There was only one thing to say because of what I now needed.
“Six years old.”
She studied me for a few seconds, somehow overcoming the apparent contradiction of audio and visual input. I grabbed her hand and led her to the couch and we both sat down together. Then I pressed my head against her chest and held her in my arms. She held me too.
“Could you sing?” I said.
“Yes, of course.”
I closed my eyes and listened to that soothing, sweet voice. Despite the audio flaw, it wasn’t in the least bit off to me. We stayed like that for some time: a robot and a man on the surface, but much more inside. When I looked up into the blank expression on her face–her nostril-less nose, the perpetual shadow between her lips, her deep brown irises and endless black pupils–I couldn’t stop the impulse building inside me.
“I love you, mom,” I said.
I like to think the edges of her frozen mouth impossibly lifted into a smile when she heard those words.
“I love you too,” she said.
And at least at that time, in that moment, I believed her.
© 2014 Ares Magazine Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author / publisher.