by Dylan Romero
It started with my mom. Her memory would slip and she would mistake me for Dad, even though he had been gone for years. Or worse, she would forget altogether. One day the nurse at the home gave me a look—a weird combination of frustration and comfort—as I entered my mom’s room. Mom had been forgetting more and more, but was generally happy to see a familiar face, even if only vaguely so. But today was different. Not only did she look upset, she didn’t look herself at all.
“Hi Mom! It’s me, your favorite son,” I said with forced cheer. I had been throwing in the “son” part for a few weeks now to help jog her memory. It seemed to work, or she would pretend like it did at least. I think she was just happy to have someone to talk to.
Mom had always liked talking. Despite being a neurobiologist who worked on complex machine learning problems (among other computer stuff I couldn’t wrap my brain around), she had a knack for splitting her time and personality between two worlds. She had been just as comfortable presiding over a dinner party as she was tinkering around with motherboards in the garage.
But her mind started punching holes in the complex equations she needed for her consulting work, forcing her to retire. Eventually, she gave up on the garage, too.
The dementia was doing something even more sinister now, and no amount of positivity was going to penetrate her scowl. I leaned back almost involuntarily. It wasn’t the scowl itself that disturbed me; it was the fact that I didn’t even recognize the expression.
“I know who you are,” she spat, avoiding eye contact. I didn’t believe her. Her eyes, though turned away, betrayed a hint of confusion. It wasn’t like her to lie.
From there, the decline was swift. She remembered my sister sometimes, but after that day she never recognized me again.
I recalled that moment while sitting at the bank a couple months after Mom died. My credit card had stopped working, and behind the desk in front of me the paunchy, mustachioed face of the account specialist was tinged with that same hint of confusion: a slight tilt of the head, lips pursed. There was no scowl though. Everything else was neutral, in that infuriating way that people have when you need help that they know that can’t, or won’t, provide.
“I’m sorry, Mister…?” He sat with his hands perched over the keyboard like a bird paused mid-landing.
“It’s John. John Buckley. I’ve been a customer here for… I don’t know, at least five years.”
“Mr. Buckley. Yes. Unfortunately, I don’t see any records of your account. Do you have any physical copies of statements or…?”
I shook my head. “No, nothing besides the credit card sitting in front of you. You really mean to tell me the number brings up nothing?
The specialist raked his mustache nervously with one hand, cleared his throat and clacked at the keyboard in a way that made me think he wasn’t really looking anything up at all. “I’m afraid not, sir.”
I’m afraid not. I had heard those words too often lately. First from the doctors when I asked about my mom’s chances of staving off decline, then from the executor of her estate—a woman I had never seen before with plump rosy cheeks and the same infuriatingly pursed lips as the account specialist. After the executor listed the assets being transferred to my sister, I asked if my mom had left me anything. I’m afraid not. (My sister had quickly explained that Mom meant for me to have the house but didn’t think about adding it to the will since I already lived there.)
The slights got smaller and less stingingly personal after that, but the I’m afraid nots had increased in frequency and clouded my life like a swarm of gnats.
“How does my entire account history disappear?” I said to the account specialist, throwing my hands up. “I need my card.”
“Well, we can certainly open up an account for you, Mr. Buckner,” the specialist said, suddenly upbeat and ready to help. His nametag said Gerald.
Buckner? This guy really didn’t give a shit. “Alright, Gerrard,” I conceded with a sigh. “Let’s get another card.”
“Sure thing, sir. It’ll take two or three weeks to arrive at your residence. Hope that’s ok. Oh, and it’s Gerald, sir.”
“What are you doing here?”
My sister eyed me suspiciously, chin tucked back. We were never close, but it wasn’t the welcome I’d expected.
“I’m sorry I never called, I uh…” I looked up at my sister expectantly; I was still standing in the doorway of her new house. She stood staring at me silently, like she was frozen and needed to be rebooted.
Then she blinked once before barking out a short, almost-laugh and stepping aside. “Please. Come in.”
“…my phone stopped working, and my credit card for that matter. And who remembers numbers these days…” I stepped past her into a living room I had never seen before. It was sparsely furnished: a sleek gray couch paired with an equally sleek coffee table made of some dark wood. The flat black rectangle of a TV was the only object adorning the off-white walls. “Looks like you’ve settled in nicely.”
“We’re getting there.” The look of suspicion was still on her face. Her arms crossed tightly under her chest.
“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” I asked.
“Well, no. I guess not. It’s—how did you find me?”
I smiled. “It was kind of impressive, actually.” I proceeded to tell my sister how I had found her new address, all the way down in Eugene, about 1.5 hours straight south on I-5 from Mom’s house (now my house) in Portland, Oregon. I told her how I had perused the United States Postal Service website on a hunch, and sent an envelope with my sister’s name, her old address, a forever stamp from our mom’s leftover Disney Villains collection (I think it was Captain Hook), and “Return Service Requested” printed just above the delivery address.
She looked confused. “Why would that do anything?”
“Because,” I said, beaming with pride at my ingenuity. “thanks to Section 507, Exhibit 1.5.1 of the Mailing Standards of the United States Postal Service Domestic Mail Manual, undeliverable mail is returned with the forwarding address on it. This address.” I pulled the envelope out of my front pocket, waving it in front of my face as proof.
“Why didn’t you send the letter once you knew?” she asked.
I stopped smiling and looked down at her coffee table, feeling sheepish. “I felt so bad about being out of touch. Coming here seemed like the right thing to do.” I looked up to meet her eyes, but she was looking past me at the door I had knocked on a few minutes earlier. “What Mom would’ve wanted me to do, at least.”
“I thought she would’ve fixed this,” she said.
“This,” she said, spreading out her hands and fingers in my direction as if that explained everything.
“Do you not want me here? Or is this about the will? The house?” I asked, unable to keep my voice from rising defensively. “I know we haven’t been close for a while, but I thought with Mom gone…”
A slight hint of affection and pity on her face. A gentler smile. “No, that’s not it,” she sighed. “I just—” Her face twisted slightly. “I’m surprised to see you is all.”
I tried to muster up some familial enthusiasm. “Why would you be surprised, silly? I’m your brother.”
“Yes,” she smiled. “You’re my brother.”
From there the conversation was easier. I didn’t go into detail about my closed and blocked accounts, all the I’m afraid nots, and the suspicious looks from Mom’s nosy neighbors, the McEntyres. We drank tea in the scratched up mugs our mom had bought when we went to Disneyland. On one, Mickey Mouse’s white-gloved hand was on his hip while the other hand was held out in a palm up wave, or handshake—I could never tell which. We chatted about Mom. My sister even laughed and cried a little when I told a story about Mom asking for ice cream, forgetting the half-melted bowl unfinished in her lap. When I pointed it out to her she had looked at the bowl like it was on fire but recovered quickly: Well clearly this is your ice cream. I don’t like vanilla. You’re getting so forgetful in your old age. That had been only a few weeks before she passed
I left before Mark, her husband, got home. He always treated me stiffly, and almost condescendingly, like the family pet or something. I assumed it was because he was an only child.
Now I’m not just suspicious; I’m downright paranoid. This goes far beyond a closed credit card or an aloof sibling; my mom’s house is completely empty. The overstuffed sofa where I had built pillow forts while watching Batman cartoons: gone. The rug in the hallway, my toothbrush, the Mickey Mouse mugs: gone, gone, and gone.
How could this happen? Why is everything disappearing? It’s like Mom’s death started a self-destruct countdown for everything in her life. All of this can’t be an accident, can it?
I’m sitting on the floor where the sofa used to be when a yellow light slides across the empty wall, followed by the sound of gravel under tires. It’s a warm night and the windows are open, amplifying the sound. Whoever robbed the house must have cracked some windows to get a breeze.
I roll onto all fours and crawl across the bare wood floor to the big window overlooking the front yard and street. “Shit,” I say under my breath with each step. “Shit shit shit.” Peering down from the windowsill—which was home to a row of dusty candles until sometime earlier today—I see a windowless van shut off its lights. The engine shudders to a stop and darkness and silence envelop the suburban street once more.
I pull out the burner phone I had recently purchased and flip to one of the three contacts I had bothered to save: my sister. At the first ring I glance back up. No movement or noise comes from the van. “Come on. Come on.”
After the third ring a female voice answers tentatively. “Hello? Who’s this?”
“It’s me,” I hiss.
“Your brother!” I half-shout, then more quietly: “Your brother.”
“Oh, uh, hi John. What’s up?” She sounds unnaturally casual.
“Someone’s here,” I whisper.
“At the house. And there’s nothing in the house. I’ve been robbed. We’ve been robbed.”
“Wait, really?” she says. “What do you mean?”
The door of the van swings open and a booted foot hits the gravel. I duck again. “Someone’s after me. They’re coming now. I feel like I’m in a movie or something. I don’t know. I need you to call the cops for me.”
“Oh, honey,” she exhales. It doesn’t sound like she’s surprised. Just sad.
“Why aren’t you freaking out?” I’m pleading now. “What’s going on? Do you know who they are?” There’s a knock at the door. She exhales again, but this time it sounds like she’s crying. She says something softly, a half whimper, that I can’t make out. “What? What did you say?”
“I’m so sorry,” she says, just loud enough to hear. She sniffles once more then the phone clicks.
The knocking turns into pounding as I scramble to the kitchen, looking for an escape route that’s not there. I stop for a moment and take a deep breath: “Keys.” I slap my thigh to reassure myself that my car keys are still in my pocket and make for the stairs. My breath is ragged. I swallow to push down a lump rising in my throat. Standing at the top step, I look down at the door halfway between the upper and lower level of the house. The pounding stops, a short pause, then the jiggle of the doorknob. I hold my breath and tip-toe-run down the stairs, straight at the door. As I pivot to take the next set of stairs to the lower level half a face materializes in the tall, narrow window next to the door. We make fleeting eye contact and I get an impression of a man, light eyes—icy and emotionless.
I jump four stairs at a time with the back of my neck tingling at the thought of that cold eye watching me. I slam into the wall at the bottom of the stairs shoulder-first, regain my balance, and hang a right. The jiggling is more violent now. As I reach the sliding door to the backyard I hear the splintering of wood behind me.
“It’s going around back!” a voice yells. I sprint across the wet grass and burst through a hedge, landing on all fours in the McEntyre’s yard. Scrambling to my feet, I continue running straight through the yard, side-stepping a pair of plastic Adirondack chairs and swiveling my eyes briefly to the McEntyre’s brightly lit dining room. The whole family is bent over plates, shoveling an unseen meal into their mouths—everyone except Suzy, the McEntyre’s preschool-aged daughter, who watches me wide-eyed, both hands wrapped around a glass as she gulps down her beverage.
A chain-link fence guards the next property line. Without stopping my momentum, I stutter step, plant one hand on the metal tube at the top of the fence and throw my legs over. This time I stick the landing. I don’t know the name of the people who live here, but I know my mom’s Subaru Forester is parked on the gravel out front. I glance back—no sign of my pursuers; just the glow of dining room lights splashed against the grass and lawn furniture—and run around the side of the house and skid to a stop when I reach the end of the fence. Half hidden by the corner of the McEntyre’s front porch, I lean forward until the van comes into view. Someone is standing next to the open passenger door, gesturing to someone else I can’t see.
Keys in hand I sprint straight for the Forester, thumbing the button on the remote to unlock the doors. The turn signals flash as I circle the hood.
“Hey! It’s over here!” someone yells from the direction of my mom’s house.
I open the door, slam it shut behind me, start the car, and spray gravel as I yank the steering wheel into a U-turn and accelerate away from the house I grew up in. In the rearview mirror I see the backs of two men as they run back to the van.
“Where am I going?” I ask aloud to no one in particular. My hands are still shaking fifteen minutes after I’d merged onto I-5 heading south. I grip the steering wheel hard to try to keep them still. I can’t go back home now. I don’t have a credit card. Most of my friends I met online, and I can’t contact them without compromising my location. I had bought the burner phone—a basic flip phone without internet access and only basic functions like calling, texting, and a few old games like Snake—specifically to avoid advertising my location.
Minutes pass. The white dashes separating my lane from the next rush into view and are sucked away into the darkness behind me. Time to think more productive thoughts. Ok, I don’t have much. But what do I have? I make a mental tally my remaining resources:
- Phone with 50 prepaid minutes of talk
- 2007 Subaru Forester with half a tank of gas
- A wallet with $40 and a Starbucks gift card with maybe $8-9 left on it
- The clothes on my back
It isn’t much, but it should carry me to the only destination I have left—the destination I had automatically started driving to before consciously realizing I was doing so: my sister’s house in Eugene.
I don’t want to stop. The lump returns to my throat as soon as I see the big green exit sign with the Shell logo stamped on it. But the Forester needs gas. If my sister is in cahoots with some shadowy government figures to disappear me, I need some juice left in the tank to get the hell out of there.
A rusty green Volkswagen Beetle is the only other car at the gas station. A bearded man stands next to it with his hands in his pockets, staring at the nozzle. I circle around to an empty row of pumps, as far away from the VW as possible.
I step out of my car to the hum of fluorescent lights and hurry across the pavement into the mini-mart. The fuzzy bee-boop of the security door announces my presence. As I approach the cashier, I notice the camera behind him. A red light blinks. Below the camera, a row of small black and white screens show—from left to right—the back of my head, my face from a high angle, the beer aisle, empty parking spots in front of the mini-mart, the line of pumps where my Forester sits idle, and the empty spot where the bearded man and the VW had been. A new vehicle pulls up. A van? It’s hard to tell on the small screens.
“$20 on which pump, sir?” says the cashier for a second time. Is that suspicion in his eyes? I swallow.
“Um, I’m not sure” I mumble. “Forget it.” I palm the $20 I had placed on the counter and turn to leave. I can feel the cashier’s eyes on the back of my head as I pass under one of the cameras and slip out the door. Forcing my eyes to remain locked straight forward I half-jog back to the car while straining to hear footsteps over the oppressive buzz of the lights.
Safely back on I-5, I gulp for air, not knowing how long I had been holding my breath.
The yellow low fuel light blinks on as the Forester banks right to take Exit 194B into Eugene. Five minutes later I’m knocking on my sister’s door. No answer. I pull out my phone, flip to her number, and call. A faint buzz on the other side of the door. She’s right there.
“I heard that,” I say. “Please. I just need to know what’s going on.” I wait. It’s late and her neighborhood is quiet. A commercial airliner moans somewhere above the overcast darkness. I lean forward until my forehead is resting against the door. “Just tell me why. I promise I’ll leave you alone. I just have to know why this is happening.”
After another long pause, she speaks: “Mom was supposed to take care of you. She wasn’t supposed to leave me to deal with this.”
“Deal with what?” Another pause.
“Remember that time you fell out of the tree out front?” she asks.
I lift my head a few inches from the door. What does that have to do with anything? “Of course. Why?”
“You broke your ankle. Had to sit inside all summer,” she continues. “And Mom felt so bad…”
“She felt so bad she let me eat ice cream for dinner for a week,” I break in. “Yes, I remember. But I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to figure out what’s happening. Just tell me what’s happening before I go crazy.”
“John,” she says softly. It’s the first time I have heard my own name in a while. It feels strange; like it doesn’t belong to me. “When was the last time you hurt yourself. After your ankle I mean.”
“What? I don’t know.”
“John, think about it,” she says. “When was the last time you really pulled a muscle. Or even had a papercut.”
“I can’t remember,” I say, feeling disoriented.
“Mom wanted you to have memories,” she says. “She said it would make you feel more real.”
“More real?” I put one hand on the door and slowly bend my legs until I’m sitting on the stoop. I stare at both legs as they splay out in front of me. My legs. I wiggle my toes invisibly behind my leather boots. I feel the cold concrete seeping through my jeans. “I’m real.”
I hear the metallic clunk of a deadbolt and the door slides away from my fingertips until my hand is back at my side. Warm air spills onto my face. I look up at the silhouette of my sister, squinting against the brightness of her living room. She squats down until we’re eye level with each other. Her dark eyes are bloodshot but determined. Wet roads meander down her cheeks, betraying the path of her tears.
“Let me ask you something, John,” she says, voice steady. “When was the last time you cut your hair? Went to the bathroom? Ate a sandwich? I know you have old memories of those, right? But when was the last time?” I just stare at her. The questions all bring up immediate, easy answers. Too easy. “Are you hungry?” she continues. Another inane question.
“No, I just ate,” I reply.
“Of course you did,” she says with a quick smile that doesn’t match her eyes, which squinch as though she’s in pain. “But you drove straight here from Mom’s place, didn’t you.”
It wasn’t a question. She knew the answer. “Well, yeah…”
“When did you eat?”
“I just ate.”
“But when? You didn’t have time for that.” A tear slides down her face and disappears under her chin, following the course already laid out for it.
“I don’t remember,” I say, looking at my shoes.
“I always wondered how Mom did that,” she says. “Made it so you could float over impossible questions without making smoke come out of your ears.”
“I’m sorry?” I say, furrowing my brow. I’m unsure if I’m asking a question or apologizing.
“You look like Dad when you do that,” she says. “I think that’s the worst part. She had to go and make you look so damn much like him.”
“I miss Dad,” I say. Do I? It feels like a reflex.
“Do me a favor,” my sister says gently. “Touch the back of your neck, just above the hairline.”
I look up at her, then lift my right hand with two fingers, like I’m about to check my own pulse, and reach behind my neck. My hand hovers an inch away from my skin and starts to shake slightly. I try to will my fingers to touch my neck but that just makes my whole arm shake. “I can’t,” I say, defeated.
“Here,” she says, reaching out and gently pressing my fingers from behind. “Let me help you.”
The shutdown happened slowly. First the eyes closed, then the body started going limp, from head to toe—probably to stop it from toppling over and hurting someone if it was standing. Sara cradled John’s head and gently guided it to the ground.
“Dammit, Mom,” she said to herself as more tears streamed down her face. Sara never wanted her mom to get an android in the first place. It had been a great help, of course, when Mom got sick. But Mom had loved John almost like a son. Initially, Sara had been creeped out; the resemblance to her dad was uncanny—right down to the facial expressions. Mom really knew her stuff.
She had been even more worried when Mom added the childhood memory expansions, then completely ignored the clause in the user agreement that banned owners from messing with the pre-installed software. In fact, Sara was pretty sure it was a felony to mess with an android’s self-awareness like that. But she was just a teenager at the time, grieving the death of her dad by coasting through her senior year of high school in a THC-induced haze. Who was she to tell her mom how to grieve? She was just happy to see her out of her bedroom and working in the garage again. How could she know it would lead to this?
She had gone from creeped out to jealous, then sick with worry when Mom got dementia and started thinking John was her real son. Then she forgot who John was entirely. Sara was surprised by the glee she felt when the doctor told her that her mom would start forgetting people she hadn’t known long first; it was proof that Sara was her real child—not John. But soon she felt guilty, watching how John cared for his mother, even after she failed to remember who he was. He had been a part of the family for years by that point. Toward the end, and much to her surprise, it dawned on Sara that she actually cared about him.
That’s when she had panicked and decided to move away, hoping it would all solve itself; that his specially-built solar battery would just run out. But it didn’t. John found her, and his programmed earnestness and kindness never waned, even though she had abandoned him. And then she had called the company to turn him off, pushing down her fear of legal repercussions from all the modifications Mom had made. And then all this had happened. She felt like a coward.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the lifeless form of circuits, metal, and polymers she cradled in her lap. “I should’ve been the one to turn you off in the first place.”
She stopped crying a few minutes later and was on the phone with the android company a few minutes after that. When they arrived, the two men picked John up just how you would pick up any dead body, she imagined: one person holding the feet, another opposite, gripping beneath the armpits. She winced when they rocked back and heaved him into the van.
“One more thing,” she said. The two men turned toward her and waited. The man who’d been at John’s feet had strikingly blue eyes; the other a face she forgot immediately when she looked away. “Can I have his memory chip?”
“Sure,” they shrugged. John was an old model at this point, worth only the trace metals and other recyclable bits they could extract from the body.
The forgettable man placed two chips in her hand, both barely the width of her thumb—one standard chip and the one her mom had installed, the latter containing a childhood’s worth of memories she only knew secondhand through the words of her brother.