- Sarah Licht
Love You Forever
Frances watched a pair of chubby legs toddle over to her, grubby hands waving as a mouth wet with drool forced out a few sputtering syllables. As disparate parts, they seemed so familiar, the son she had known for his two years of life plus ten extra years. As disjointed features, they appeared real, lifelike even, as if the sparkle in Dean’s eyes was fueled by childlike adoration and not the LED lights she paid $60 extra for.
She reminded herself that at least the light was still there, that she still had a being in front of her who demanded nurturing and attention, that at least he resembled the original Dean — Frances inwardly corrected that slip; proper bonding could only take place if the child and its replacement were deemed one and the same, the sales representative told her. They both had his tousled brown curls, the small scar on the back of his neck where she could pretend that his surgery was successful, and she brought him back to a place of warmth. Hospitals were far too cold and bright, too harsh to die in, she figured.
“I can offer you our newest model. 20% down payment now, and I assure you that our lifetime satisfaction guarantee is still in place.” The sales representative sat behind her desk, a vast, glass desert that separated her from Frances. A silver name tag that read ‘Joan’ was pinned to her baby blue blazer and matching skirt, and Frances suddenly felt embarrassed by the wrinkled sweater she hastily threw on over her pajamas. It had only been two days after the surgeon gave her the news when she received the call from the Asimov Foundation, though she wasn’t sure how they got her number. She recognized the name from the cardiology wing she wandered past during the operation, the pet replicas she occasionally passed being walked by neighbors, barking and growling through synthetic vocal cords.
“If you want, I can show you a few samples, though yours will be customized to match the deceased.”
Joan spoke matter-of-factly, and Frances noticed three ‘Top Sales Representative’ plaques hung on the wall behind her, right in the view of any potential clients.
“You said he’ll be exactly the same, right?” Her neighbor, Michael Harrison’s greyhound seemed close enough to the original, but she doubted that the animal had much of a personality to be replaced.
“Of course, Ms. Richards. The deceased’s surgeon recorded a snapshot of his brain in the moments before death. On our end, we recreate the brain neuron by neuron, and we can proudly boast a 70% satisfaction rate from our clients.”
“Wait, you didn’t call me until today. How did you know to…”
“Consider it standard protocol. It gives us the most accurate results possible. I’d doubt you’d want us to use an old scan, right?” Frances couldn’t help but agree. She wanted Dean back exactly as he left, for him to always remain that way.
“Excellent. Now, I just have some papers for you to sign. And, would you like to pay upfront or use an installment plan?”
Dean, not a replica, she reminded herself, but the real Dean, arrived in a neatly-taped cardboard box the following week. His body was carefully placed into the clothing he wore the morning of his operation, head resting over his hands as if he was sleeping. It took Frances a few minutes to find the switch located under his limp, silicon arm, but, once pressed, the toddler opened his large, green eyes, yawning slightly before smiling at her. That gesture, that familiar face she saw every day, was truly accurate to the finest detail.
Accurate but still inhuman in many ways that Frances learned were by design when she read the manual that came in Dean’s box. AI had no need to eat or sleep, though it was suggested that they be turned off to allow caretakers time to rest. His joints gave off a small wrrr as he ran, and occasionally steam would erupt from his fake sweat glands as his internal processors attempted to cool down.
“Does someone want to play?” Dean happily chirped in response. Frances wondered if he would ever learn how to speak properly, a thought that quickly dissipated as the years slowly slipped by, and he remained exactly as he was. Innocent, naïve, as if every new experience rolled off of him, never able to teach him or allow him to change. But he was still here and able to fall without so much as a scrape on his knee. She declined the injury package that allowed AI to develop injuries as they explored the world through ink packets hidden in their artificial skin.
Dean’s skin was hot as she lifted him, another wet coo escaping his lips. No, there was a time when he got hurt, but Frances knew it was her fault. She hadn’t read the manual properly, the part where it said that Dean’s model had to cool down completely before being turned off. He was still and limp and cold in his cot when she tried to rouse him awake, eyelids half-open like his circuitry attempted to force the steam to exit out of every possible opening. Some small part of Frances wanted to acknowledge how many phones she had dropped into public swimming pools or laptops cracked and replaced the next day. But that was quickly drowned out by the screaming when she found her baby dead once more. In a place warmer and under a mobile decorated with the moon and a series of stars, but dead nevertheless.
“Yes, he overheated I think. You didn’t tell me that could happen!” After one of her neighbors and his mechanical dog yelled at her through the front door until she calmed down, Frances called the Asimov Foundation and asked for Joan.
“It was clearly written in the manual. We hold no liability for information that you missed.” She heard Joan click a pen and write something down, maybe how she failed at motherhood twice and was now barred from getting a newer Dean.
“What do I do now?” Though Frances had forced her body to relax enough to reach for her cellphone and type in the number, panic still ripped through her body like steam searching for an exit hole. She wondered if this was how Dean felt in his crib if he silently cursed her before his circuitry cut out.
“It’s only been six months, so your warranty isn't up yet. If you want, we can send you a new replica free of charge.”
Frances agreed immediately, and the new Dean arrived in express shipping a day later. And, the old Dean — or maybe he was the newer old Dean, or just a butterfly going through stages of life; no one would call an empty chrysalis an old butterfly — was placed in her attic, hands curled under his head like he was sleeping, beneath some boxes of old tax information and photo albums containing the man who left him soon after he was born. Dean played downstairs the whole time, examining the blocks that his other selves used to construct kingdoms out of.
The year passed without any more issues, as did the next and the next until Frances forgot about the milestones she once dreamed of Dean passing: first day of school, first bike ride, first gold star on an assignment and more distant hopes of weddings and grandchildren and having someone built on those hopes look her in the eyes as she finally drifted away. Now, the only eyes she saw in those moments of wistful dreaming were damp with confusion, too new and innocent to know why mommy wouldn’t wake up, why her body was still and limp and cold. There would be no instruction manual for him to read, just the reality that a person once there was gone.
It wasn’t until the 10th anniversary that was celebrated with a gift card from the Asimov Foundation to be used on any of their pet models — not a 12th birthday, Frances reminded herself, wishing that she could reach in and pluck those wavering neurons out — that Frances became attuned to how her joints shifted each morning as she walked upstairs to wake Dean, how her body seemed to crack into place with every slowly, methodical motion. She considered moving his crib downstairs into her room, where he once resided as a newborn, but Dean, as she knew him, always gave life to the top half of the house, and legs without a torso and head were useless. No, it was her that was failing once more even as she fought to do anything but.
He felt heavier now as she lifted him, closer to a marble statue of human perfection than something of flesh and blood. Frances couldn’t help but smooth out his tousled curls and wipe a strand of drool from his chin. Maybe she should call Joan again and ask for his salivary glands to be dampened. The sales representative had already been so kind as to sell her the elastic joint pack to keep his knees and elbows healthy and resistant to injuries, the anti-speech pack to distort his vocal cords and turn his choppy spew of sounds and consonants into a soft, melodic coo, even the heater pack to always give his body a soft warmth even when he was turned off. There were dozens of others, but Frances preferred to think of them, not as additives but a completion of sorts, a way to bring Dean to a more perfect form.
It wasn’t until she placed him in front of his toys that she felt the cold emptiness of her arms with nothing to hold. Frances supposed that this was a feeling that mothers learned to ignore, that their baby was now too big, too old to carry and allow them to place their chubby cheeks on the small part of her body where her neck and shoulders connected. But what would happen when her arms grew too frail to hold him, bones too fragile to support his body as he groped and tugged at her hair and the top of her shirt? This Dean had known nothing else, nothing but all she was willing to give him.
At first, she considered having it in her will that, when her moment of natural death came, Dean would be deactivated and buried with her. The idea came when Michael Harrison had a stroke in the middle of the night two years prior, and the Asimov Foundation euthanized his silicon greyhound to be placed in the coffin with him. It seemed so simple, romantic even, for that to be the end of her and Dean. Yet, the shame and horror when she even contemplated Dean’s death was bound to kill her faster than any natural death could. No, he couldn’t die again, and so, she couldn’t either. She knew he would prefer it that way.
On the floor of his room, Dean seemed to know nothing of her thoughts, slamming his hands against a toy xylophone she bought him for the 6th anniversary. Even now, as his LED lights seemed more apparent, and several layers of mismatched paint coated his silicon limbs, he looked just as pure as he did that morning in the hospital so long ago. So full of life without understanding the risk of living, the agony of having to mitigate those risks. He stared at her after a moment, eyes pinched in concentration as his throat attempted to force a word up. A sound that could slip past his distorted vocal cords.
“Mama,” a sticky hand pointed at her, a bright, zirconium smile as he gazed at her in wonder. That was all it took to cement her decision.
The dial tone for Asimov seemed to mock and enchant her as she waited for Joan to pick up. She knew Frances' number and sometimes seemed to be waiting with bated breath for her call.
“Ms. Richards, how can I assist you today?” A pen click, the smooth tide of papers over a glass desk.
“I’d like to inquire about your adult models.”
SARAH LICHT is a poet and writer based in Titusville, Florida. In their spare time, Sarah enjoys exploring nature preserves, reading early science fiction, and entertaining their caffeine addiction. Their work has been published in The Grinnell Review, Screen Door Review, and Grim & Gilded.