by Melissa Goodrich and Dana Diehl
Winner, 2018 Waasnode Fiction Prize
selected by Anne Valente
The CDs arrive with our son. He’s in low-power mode when we open the crate, nestled in a bed of packing peanuts. His name, username, and password are affixed to his white cotton T-shirt with a safety-pin. His bangs are long and fall over his closed eyes. There is a glossy parents’ manual beneath his head that’s at least twice the size of a phone book.
Still, the CDs are what overwhelm me.
The CDs come in by the hundreds. Dozens of boxes piled beside the door. The postman is kind enough to wheel them in our front hallway, where they line up, pile by pile. My husband unpacks our son. “He’s skinny,” he says, lifting him up carefully so as not to scrape his head. My husband sniffs our son, lifts his arm by the wrist, rolls the joints to make sure everything arrived intact. “I think I should give him a bath.”
“Okay,” I tell him. “But remember to wrap his foot. You can use a ziplock bag and a rubber band, I think. I read that somewhere.” Then I begin to unpack the CDs.
There is so much data to upload before he can enter fourth grade:
English Language Recognition and Acquisition Software
Tone and Mood Modules
Obedience—Direct and Implied Commands
Levels 1-10 Conversation
Assertiveness and Confrontation (ON/OFF)
Automatic Response: Emergencies
Handwriting (Male, Legible, D’nealian Style)
Levels 1-10 Music
Levels 1-10 Art
Levels 1-10 Speech and Pronunciation
Sensitivity Module (Male, Average)
Sensory Data Processing
Self-Sufficiency: Home Version: Levels 1-4
Self-Sufficiency: Public: Levels 1-4
Graphia/Calcula Recognition Software
Visual Perception/Visual Motor Modules
Muscle Control and Coordination
Personality (Male, Average) (ON/OFF)
Level 1-10 Athletics
Level 1-10 Play (ON/OFF)
…My eyes go blurry after a while.
We’re not supposed to upload the CDs too quickly. They say that’s how serial killers are made. We had a neighbor who tried to shortcut the process, uploaded their entire son in a week. We suspect they wanted him ready for their Viking tour cruise in July. A few days after the upload my husband saw the boy plucking bird feathers from the bird bath in the neighbor’s front yard and sucking them like hard candy. Our neighbors left town shortly after that, and we haven’t seen them since.
The manual makes it clear that we’re meant to follow a specific schedule in uploading the CDs. There’s even a color-coded calendar that we can unfold and stick to our fridge. Three months to build our son, complete by the 25th of August. But to see the CDs as a physical mass—20 sons worth of data – makes the summer seem short, impregnable.
I can hear the bathwater running in the next room, the sound of a cup of warm water falling over my new son’s head. It’s amazing the tech they have now. Solar charging. Waterproof ports. Bluetooth capabilities. Voice Command software. But we couldn’t afford all that. ALEX has the original tech, a port in his foot. His brain and nerves are mechanic, but the rest of him is organic. When I peer into the bathroom, my husband has ALEX’s foot wrapped in plastic, balanced on the edge of the tub. We wanted a boy. A boy was what we could afford.
When I lay out all the CDs, they fill the entire dining table. They fill the side tables in our bedroom. They fill the living-room couch. A brilliance of color. Ten thousand terabytes. Tomorrow we’ll plan and sort, but tonight, we put our new little boy into his brand-new bed.
His name is ALEX.
I remove the note pinned to his shirt. His bangs are still damp. I trim them with a pair of sewing scissors so they rest on his eyebrows. I can smell his breath through his nostrils—a sour, earthy smell. I kiss his forehead, even though I know he’s sleeping. Sorry—in sleep mode. I keep forgetting: children are different these days. He won’t grow up like my husband and I did. No one does.
So I carefully screw the VGA cable into the port on the bottom of his foot, connect the other end of the cable to my laptop. I plug the laptop into a charger connected to this little standing bike I have. I spend a few minutes stretching before hopping on and starting to pedal. I’ve been doing this for a while now—generating enough for the washing machine cycles. Enough to microwave green beans. Enough to fill the backyard with light. Generating our own electricity has been a small way we’ve learned to save money. The manual says charging ALEX each night could add over $100 each month to our electric bill, and I’m grateful to have this alternative.
My husband and I take turns all night cycling, charging our new boy up.
In the morning, we’re both exhausted, just like real new parents. But we’ve charged our laptop/son enough to access his data files. See through the little camera they have installed over his left eye. See the world he sees. His world.
We type “ItsAlex847” into the username portal and logon to our new son. Well, he’s our son after we complete the Welcome tutorial.
We hear the sound of a creaky door opening.
“Huh,” my husband says. “Just like AOL.”
We are expecting a large cache of files and photographs, perhaps the login credentials.
But it’s a simple desktop. That bland green background from the 90’s.
We double click the “LIVE Feed” icon (an almond eye) and it’s black. In the corner of the desktop is a red and green switch we take to indicate power on and off.
“Do we turn him on?” I ask.
“Wait. Let’s just,” my husband says, and takes us through his paperwork. His electronic birth certificate and social, medical history, family history (all blank), receipt, and a brief letter:
Welcome! My name is ALEX, and I will be a great SON. If you have any questions or issues with your new SON, please call your Customer Service Representative. Have your serial number, username, and password ready.
I put my hand on the mouse, over my husband’s hand. Together we click the power switch to green.
“Hello,” I say to him.
ALEX sits up straight like he’s been hit by lightning. His eyes are silver saucers. He tries to speak and finds he can’t. He begins to cry. Silent sobs. Fat tears well in his eyes. He looks around the room and at his clothes and his hands, stands, winces at the cord connected to the port in his foot.
“Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I tell him, but my husband powers him down and ALEX slumps slowly to the floor, his eyelids falling shut.
My husband lifts ALEX back onto the bed, sets his head on the pillow. Then he himself slumps onto the floor and lies there with his hands over his eyes.
“Everything is scary the first time,” I say.
“You would be disoriented, too.”
I start to replay the LIVE feed, what ALEX saw when we turned him on, but my husband holds up a hand. I pause.
“We did the right thing, right?” he says. “We want this, right?”
“We did the right thing. We want this,” I repeat.
My husband gets up, leaves the room. When I hear him in the kitchen, opening the fridge, running the faucet, I hit PLAY. I don’t mind watching the video alone. This is a chance for me to form a special bond with our son. Share his first seconds of life, just like a real mother would.
The LIVE feed replay flickers on. I reach out and hold ALEX’s ankle on the bed behind me. His skin is smooth and perfect.
The first thing our son saw was the ceiling and the rotating ceiling fan. When he sat up, the room was blurry around him. When he lifted his hand to his face, it was the only thing in focus. Everything else was splotches, like a watercolor before it dries. We haven’t downloaded Shape Recognition yet. To ALEX, the world is a flat blur. The manual compares it to a blind person gaining sight for the first time. They can’t reconcile the feeling of a pear to the image of a pear. The feeling of a loved one’s face to the face itself. Still though, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I’d hoped ALEX would be able to push through the blur, to me.
The hardest part of parenting is prioritizing. Choosing what to learn first.
Some CDs we have to upload first. Our new ALEX can’t sit up without teetering before we download BALANCE. So we give him BALANCE. ALEX needs Sight Software and Basic Motor Functions and Health and Wellness (Aversion to Poisons: ON, Diverse Food Interests: ON). He is heavy and doesn’t know about facial expression yet. We have to carry him together those first days. I hold his head, my husband carries his legs. He pees on us because we haven’t downloaded Toilet Training, and we can’t download Toilet Training until the motor functions set in and he knows how to dilate his eyes and he learns to focus beyond the radius between his face and ours.
Other CDs, the manual says, we can upload to our own preference. For every day, there is a blank space on our color-coded calendar. Parents’ Choice. We can’t decide whether we want him to learn Musical Rhythm Recognition first, or Concept of Zero. Do we want our son to be predisposed to be an artist or a mathematician? An architect or a motivational speaker?
My husband and I can’t agree. I want to upload the Mathematical Reasoning package first. My husband thinks we should upload the optional CDs at random, blindly.
“Just like in the old days,” he says. “A random soup of genetics. Our son should be allowed to discover what he’s good at for himself, and us with him. Doesn’t it feel a little—cold—to build him? Like he’s a…”
He trails off. I wonder what kind of son we would have had if we did it the old way. Would he have my husband’s red hair? Would his jaw crack every time he yawned like mine does? Would freckles scatter along his spine like they do on both of our faces?
But I didn’t want a child the old way. I never wanted a baby. I never wanted to hold other people’s babies. Whenever I imagined having a child, I imagined a boy or girl already grown.
“We’ll take turns,” I say. “I choose the CD today, and you can choose tomorrow.”
I slip a CD on spatial reasoning into the laptop port, and our son’s closed eyelids twitch.
It isn’t long until the screaming starts. It takes new children weeks to apply the English Recognition Software – the manual calls this the “absorbing” phase. It’s strange, seeing a boy scream like a baby, his lips trying to form syllables that turn into frustrated cries.
The manual encourages at least 8 hours of conversation a day to calibrate the dialect and vocabulary range of the family. This is hard to do while he screams, while his large body is behaving like an infant. Hard to do while he can barely chew and use a toilet. We try hard to speak in complete sentences around ALEX. We try to diversify our vocabulary. On the fridge, we have a list of alternate ways to say: this day is good, this day sucks, this day was fine. We don’t want to inadvertently cast his language at the baseline: average, below-average.
My husband and I are surprised by how quickly we run out of things to say. To keep the conversation going, we start reading out loud to each other, while ALEX whimpers on the couch (even when it doesn’t look like he is, the manual assures us, your BOY is listening). We read articles. New Yorker stories. Washington Post pieces. We try to find the most trustworthy news sources. We avoid publications that rely on logical fallacies to make their arguments. But one night I catch my husband reading ALEX Goodnight Moon before bed. I catch myself singing him the Irish lullaby my mother sung me. I daydream about our family, a few years from now, going on a vacation to the western coast of Ireland, kneeling on the grassy Cliffs of Moher while sea wind whips our hair, driving until we find my great-grandmother’s gravestone and I can say to ALEX, See—this is where you began.
Though that would be a lie.
Sometimes I watch ALEX dream on the LIVE feed. All you see are clouds, moving across his retinas like a screensaver.
“You’re going to be the smartest boy,” I whisper as the clouds wisp by. “You are my best boy. My smart boy.”
I still think of it as sleeping.
ALEX’s first words are “tortoise migration.”
We’re sitting around the kitchen table, my husband helping ALEX to spoon couscous into his mouth, when ALEX gently pushes away the spoon and speaks.
It’s so unexpected. My husband and I look at each other for a stunned second and then burst into laughter. We laugh until our eyes tear. It feels so good to laugh together that we forget for a moment to praise ALEX, to run to his side, to kiss his cheeks, to arrange our faces so that we make eye contact with him and he makes eye contact with us.
He’s silent for the next few days after that, so we worry that it was a fluke, but then he whispers that the water is too hot during his morning bath. And the next day, as we watch a documentary about puffins, he comments that his favorite color is blue. Like this, he says, pointing to the glacier on the television screen. “No, honey,” we tell him. “That is white. White like clouds. White like teeth.” ALEX touches his lips. “White,” he repeats. ALEX’s voice is low and shy. As the days go by, he speaks more, and we learn that he says “caramel” like “car-mall,” just like we do. And “pecan” like “pee-can,” just like we do. Sometimes we think that he is just parroting us, but then he’ll say something surprising, like, “Look! It’s wild as green!” and I know this is real.
By July, ALEX can talk and walk by himself and use the toilet with 80% accuracy. I tell my husband that maybe it’s time he goes back to work. He doesn’t want to go, but I convince him that ALEX and I will be fine alone. I remind him that soon we’ll be buying trapper keepers and ball point pens and new shoes for the first day of school. And later, entrance fees to the planetarium and soccer cleats and Christmas gifts wrapped in shiny paper. My job has given me paid parental leave, but my husband’s has not. “Fine,” he eventually says. “As long as you text me pictures. Pictures of everything. I mean it. If he’s able to piss in the toilet without getting the floor wet, I want documentation.”
The night before my husband goes back to work, I can’t sleep. I’m giddy with anticipation. I hadn’t realized how much I craved time by myself with ALEX. It makes me feel a little guilty how much I want it, like maybe I’m trying to push my husband out of the equation.
I wake up early, before my husband, to hop on the bicycle, to charge ALEX up to 100%. When he opens his eyes, he doesn’t yawn or stretch. We didn’t have the money for naturalisms like that. That’s just something ALEX will need to learn via direct instruction. Right now, when ALEX wakes, he sits up straight to attention, knocking his plush tortoise to the floor. The tortoise we tried to get him to snuggle with, the tortoise we bought to commemorate his first words. Mostly it just gets knocked to the floor. We tried to get him to name it, but he didn’t understand. “Hi, my name is ALEX,” he said when we prompted him. “No, name the tortoise,” we insisted. “My name is ALEX,” he repeated. “That’s my name.”
Little Alex lies shell down on the floor while big ALEX makes his bed. Part of his MORNING ROUTINE download.
“G’morning,” he says, just like we do, making military corners. He peels off his pajamas and deposits them in the laundry basket. Pulls on clean underwear. Jean shorts. A blue and red striped shirt. Sensible sneakers. He marches off to the bathroom to wash up.
We need to work on his body language, I think. I wonder how much NONCHALANCE would cost, or some SOCIAL CUES modules. ALEX already has INTUITION but it doesn’t seem to work in social situations. It mostly applies to food—detecting when something has spoiled. And sometimes he may say something odd, standing at his closet door. “I feel like red today,” he might say. “I don’t know why.” And all day I’ll catch him fingering the red sleeves of his shirt, smiling to himself.
He brushes each quadrant of his teeth for 45 seconds, gargles, spits. Some of it slides down the edges of the sink, and this makes me smile. I like seeing little cracks in the functionality. Makes it easier to believe he’s real.
My husband stands in the doorway, tucking his shirttail in, fussing with his beard. “You two going to be alright today?”
“Absolutely,” I say.
He says, “Don’t forget to download POP CULTURE. I don’t want him being a weirdo in school.”
“These CDs are from 2001. He’ll be out of the loop by well over a decade.”
My husband frowns. “2001 is better than nothing. It’s cool to be into the classics.” He hugs ALEX and kisses his forehead, right beside the camera lens protruding above the eyebrow, and heads out for the day.
ALEX puts his toothbrush back in its cup and stares at me, blinking once every 6 seconds. We listen to the hum of the garage door closing. ALEX’s blinking is so steady I can measure time by it. 9 seconds for the garage door to shut. 15 seconds for the sound of my husband’s car to fade as he drives away. Still ALEX doesn’t move, and I realize he’s waiting for instructions.
I don’t know what to make of moments like this – is he just cooperating? Curious?
“We’re going on a little trip,” I say, taking his hand. I smile a conspiratorial smile. He tries to parrot it back to me, and I laugh. He laughs. In the 20 minutes it takes to download “POP CULTURE,” I pack us a picnic, beach towels, sunscreen, plastic wrap, a small shovel and bucket. He sits on the edge of his bed watching me, kicking slightly with his plugged-in foot.
When we get to the beach, ALEX is immediately attuned to the sounds of waves. It’s like I can see his ears bending forward like a horse’s. His mouth gapes open as the salt air hits our skin. I breathe in deeply. “Welcome to the ocean, ALEX.” I put a pair of small sunglasses over his eyes.
“Wow,” he says, pressing them against his nose.
I say, “Isn’t it neat?” I hoist the cooler and umbrella from the trunk and head toward the open beach. ALEX has a little trouble marching through the sand, his arms loaded down with towels, and I can’t stop smiling. I love watching him like this.
He stares intently at the ocean tiding in and out. “Is it dangerous?” he asks.
“Not really,” I tell him.
“What percentage of danger is it?”
I imagine shark fins, jellyfish, kelp tangles, waves cresting over his head. I imagine the unmapped bottom of the sea floor. Sunken ships and submarines. Underwater minefields. The tectonic plates shifting and spouting magma. What does ALEX already know about the ocean? “I’m not sure,” I say.
We flap out our beach towels and sit on them pretzel style. We are almost the only people on the beach today. There is a man with a metal detector far enough away that his face is just a pink blob. I stick an umbrella into the sand and show ALEX how to crank it open. A circle of shade blooms around us. I help ALEX to ease off his shoes and socks and wrap the port-foot in plastic before slathering on the sunblock.
“This protects our skin,” I explain, rubbing it into his neck and arms and across both cheekbones. “Do you know what a sunburn is?”
His eyelids flicker and then lock halfway over his eyes. He’s thinking.
“Sunburn,” he says, reciting. “Reddening, inflammation, and, in severe cases, blistering and peeling of the skin caused by overexposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun.”
“Uh, yes,” I say. “Correct.”
“Your skin can peel?” he asks, blinking at me.
I think of peeling apples, carrots, potatoes. What I say is, “Not if we protect it.” I take ALEX’s hand and lead him to the ocean. I say, “We are protected.”
We stand at the edge of the tide. The waves rush in, foam at our feet, pool on ALEX’s plastic wrap. It’s cold. The hair on my body stands to attention. ALEX watches me wiggle my toes in the wet sand, then wiggles his.
I bend down, cup the waves in my hands, and splash the water over us.
ALEX wipes his eyes.
He looks up at me, squints against the sun. He says, “Drops of Jupiter in your hair.”
I laugh. I take his hand. “It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“It feels good,” says ALEX. Affability: ON. Positive Affirmation: ON. “What is ultraviolet?” he asks.
“It has something to do with the sun,” I say.
“You’re not sure?” he says. Affability: ON. Critical Thinking: ON.
A wave covers our feet. It sprays our knees.
“It’s okay to not be sure of something,” I say. “Then we can have the fun of figuring it out.”
A seagull coasts overhead, and ALEX’s eyes go to it. I imagine him processing: black wing-tips, orange beak, fanned tail, webbed feet.
“ALEX,” I say, and he turns to me like a kite tugged at its string. “When I look at the waves, I think of rolling fields of grass, like the ones we have behind our house. It makes me feel peaceful. What do you see when you look at the waves?”
His forehead crinkles. He looks out at the ocean.
“There’s no wrong answer,” I say.
“I see,” ALEX answers slowly. “I see hills, too.”
I should praise him for trying. I should say, “That’s nice.” I should say, “I guess we see the world the same way.”
Instead, I take his hand—his fingers curl instinctively around mine—and walk him back to our towels.
When we return from the beach, I put ALEX into REST MODE, plug in the VGA cable and scroll through his Index. He does have some scientific and geographical knowledge of the ocean—I can find ‘beach,’ and ‘sand,’ and ‘wave’ – but when I click on ‘wave’ what comes up is
I wonder how to reconcile this data with our experience this morning. Where is the sting of the deep ocean water against our toes, the cleansing feeling of salty air on our cheeks? How was what happened this morning even filed? In the Index, I arrange by “Date Modified,” and see this morning in a video file labeled FEED6-15-17. It’s raw footage from his camera. ALEX didn’t learn anything from me today.
In the Index, I click ‘wave’ again. There are executive editing functions, mostly for parental monitoring, and there’s an additional information field I can type into.
I like the beach.
It feels good when the waves wash over my toes.
I wonder what’s at the bottom of the sea.
Then I close the Index and close the computer. I lay next to ALEX in the bed. I put my nose in his hair and it smells like ocean. I feel for the heat of a sunburn on his forehead, but his skin is, as always, cool.
The next day, while my husband works, I take ALEX in for his first checkup. He needs to be up to date on vaccines and personally checked by a variety of doctors and technicians to ensure his functionality before the school year begins. We had this appointment scheduled before ALEX even arrived at our door.
“An older model, eh?” the pedia-tech says, winking at me. She’s unscrewed a little plate in the back of ALEX’s neck and is poking around the wiring in his neck, at the panel that acts as his brain. His foot is plugged into her computer and she has access to everything. His daily files. The curriculum we’ve downloaded. The stats that show how much lullabies affect his personality and mood.
“The new models are so over-priced,” I say. Then, afraid I might have insulted her, add, “Not that it wouldn’t be worth it.”
I take out my camera phone and snap photos as she presses her fingers along ALEX’s spine. My husband was upset that I’d forgotten to take pictures of ALEX at the beach—wouldn’t talk to me all through dinner and insisted he put our son to bed by himself—and so I’ve decided to overdo it today. It’s only 10 AM, and I’ve already sent 23 pictures.
As I text the newest photo to my husband, the tech says, “I personally like the old models. More reliable. Predictable. Great parental oversight—you can see and access every data exchange. You’ve done a great job keeping this model up and running—he’s in great shape.”
I’m chewing my lips, wondering how many other children she sees like him. “Is he…is it obvious?” I ask. “Will the other children be able to tell?”
“Oh,” she says, screwing the neck panel back in place. “You mean the full humans? Don’t worry about that. So many kids are like ALEX these days. Let’s see how the organics are doing.”
She powers ALEX on.
She takes his temperature, checks his reflexes, blood pressure, weighs him (nearly 180 pounds, because of the mechanical aspects), peers in his ears and nose and mouth. She asks, “How are you doing ALEX?” and he says, “Not too shabby.” Just like us.
She taps his knee with a reflex hammer and ALEX says, “I wonder what’s at the bottom of the ocean.”
The pedia-tech looks from him to me, puzzled.
“We went to the beach yesterday,” I explain.
“I like the beach,” says ALEX, a small buzzing coming from inside of his head. He scratches at it. “The sun looked like a lightbubble.”
“Huh,” says the tech. “Spontaneous thought. I didn’t know the old modules had those configurations. What year did you say he was?”
“Nice. My Toyota’s an ’06.” She sticks a flashlight into his ear. “Well, it isn’t overheating him. That can happen sometimes. You may want to install a fan across his neck panel if you ever notice it, though.”
I thank her, take ALEX by the hand. When we leave, I see a waiting room full of children I can’t tell are humanoid or not. The point is to not be able to tell. There’s a skinny man in a suit, a baby small as a flour sack balanced against his chest while he checks his phone. The baby isn’t crying.
Rest mode, I instinctively think.
“Why do ‘I wonder’?” ALEX asks.
“You wonder why you wonder?” I say mysteriously.
There’s a whirring coming from his ear. It feels loud, like the whole room can hear it.
Every day while my husband is at work, I update something in ALEX’s Index.
I discover connotation preferences. Dialect choices. Associations. I can actually hear the digital synapses (they make a sort of clicking) inside ALEX’s head when I fuss with them on the laptop. Sometimes he stays in sleep mode all afternoon so I can update the Index with memories.
Well, I think of them as memories. I prefer ‘memories’ to ‘indexes.’
Under ‘soft’ I update associations: kittens, clouds, white beach sands, skin, cotton quilts, the look of snow.
Under ‘Wednesday’ I make sure the pronunciation is ‘WED-NESS-DAY” (internally), just like me.
Under worries, I start inserting my own:
I worry I won’t fit in.
I worry I stomp my feet when I walk.
I worry that my face looks weird when I’m thinking.
I worry my references will be out of touch.
I upload pictures of my childhood home, the mosquito-riddled lake, the hills covered in snow, the kitchen with the yellow tiles and large windows, and set them on his daydream rotation.
Under ‘sexuality,’ I hesitate. There is a censorship option here, to nix any content containing language from a black list. I’m not sure how I feel about this, the list of body parts and gendered slang. I erase ‘ejaculation,’ ‘hard-on,’ ‘climax’ from the blacklist. I write something about consent and love and the importance of male birth control in the additional notes box. I write, Masturbation isn’t bad.
I upload my favorite songs to be stuck in his head.
I tease out preferences for toothpaste, ice-cream, chewing gum flavor.
I tamper with the sensitivity module. Turn it to MAX.
It’s been six months since we downloaded Stage Four Puberty.
And it’s been five years since ALEX became our son.
ALEX has been avoiding me for days.
On Friday he locked the door to his bedroom and refused to come to dinner. It’s been hard because he needs me to power him up, so he sticks the cord underneath his door, and I bike and bike until he’s had enough and gives a yank, the cord snaking back under the threshold.
My husband thinks it’s gross and invasive that I’ve been monitoring ALEX’s masturbation habits, so I stop telling him when I check. I stopped telling my husband everything a long time ago, so it’s not hard to hide one more thing.
I don’t tell my husband that I think it’s sweet how chaste ALEX’s fantasies are. In the video replays, it’s all pink softness behind his eyelids. It’s bare shoulders and jawlines and smooth kneecaps. I have an app on my phone now. I can check ALEX’s logistics as I wait in traffic.
When ALEX finally leaves his room, he says, “Mom, I’m so sick of you invading my privacy. I know you’ve been in my head.”
I’m in the living room drinking a ginger ale and watching a reality TV show about a humanoid searching for love. The girls don’t know he’s a humanoid, and the humanoid worries that they will break up with him when they find out. I change the channel to a golf game as ALEX enters the room, because I don’t want him thinking being a humanoid makes him any different from other people.
“Mom,” he says, standing in front of the television, “I feel like my thoughts are really your thoughts.”
This is the first time ALEX has let on that he knows what I do inside his head while he’s sleeping.
I take a breath. I say, “Honey, that’s just what it means to be someone’s offspring. Every child is a composite of the genetics their parents pass on to them and the ideas their parents’ expose them to.”
I think to how I downloaded Phobias and Neuroses and Panic Attacks when ALEX was twelve to help him seem more natural. How I turned Affability: OFF. How I gave him my Fear of Heights and watched him panic when we rode a ski-lift to the top of an alpine slope and how he was so terrified that when we got to the bottom again he ran into the bathroom and refused to come out.
“No,” ALEX says. “What I mean is, last week I had the thought that the neighbors were judging me because the paint on the mailbox was chipping. Why would I think that? I don’t even know the neighbors’ names. Mom? And why can’t I drink Pepsi anymore? Why does it feel like slugs crawling down my throat when I drink it?”
“You were drinking too much soda,” I say. “It was making you break out.”
ALEX throws his hands outward and lets out a frustrated groan that he must have picked up at school. He stomps out of the room, and I hear his bedroom door slam.
When I hear his lock click, I tiptoe upstairs and put my ear to the door. I hear tinny music and tapping and know he must be playing one of his video games. ALEX can hold his pee for three times as long as a normal teenager. He won’t be out anytime soon. I sink to the ground and lean my back to ALEX’s door and try to get comfortable.
After my maternity leave ended, I didn’t go back to work like I’d said I would. My husband got a second job transcribing phone calls for the hard of hearing so we could afford to pay for the first stage of Puberty CDs, and suddenly the most time we ever spent together was in the morning, bumping into each other between the fridge and Keurig.
At the end of the first summer I brought up the idea of homeschooling ALEX, but my husband convinced me that the best way for him to learn to be a real boy (we’ve learned to stop using words like “real” since then) was to be around kids his biological age. So instead, I spent my days reading books on parenting. I learned how to sew. I learned how to cut the crust off sandwiches while preserving the maximum amount of bread. I learned how to turn cardboard boxes and white sheets into costumes for the school play.
And ALEX became a dream son. He became the person I wish I’d been when I was a child. On his report cards, teachers wrote that he was a real upstander. That he cried when pigeons got stuck in the gymnasium after recess. He always asked his peers for their preferred pronouns.
I told him how proud I am of him, but he never understood pride. He was acting the only way he knew how.
As I wait outside ALEX’s door, I worry. I worry about ALEX in a way I’ve never had to worry about him before. I worry that he will hate me or already does. I worry about him becoming a son who closes his laptop when I come into the room. I worry about him downloading malicious software that could negatively augment his bloodstream or overheat him. I worry about him sneaking off somewhere with low cell-reception because, I realize, ALEX is one giant mobile computer. I worry about him powering down suddenly on a hike, or getting waterlogged and having his electronic synapses electrocuting his organic parts. He knows he’s not allowed to swim, sunbathe, rock-climb, hike. I picture broken bones and computer chips. Sometimes on the weekends I power him to nearly off and run diagnostic after diagnostic. I check the ALEX app probably 60 times a day, that little blinking GPS dot that tells me where he is, his mainframe temperature, his heartrate.
Is this what it feels like to be the mother of a biological child, a child whose brain is separated from you by six millimeters of hard skull?
I hear ALEX sleeping. ALEX puts himself on SLEEPMODE now. It’s a privilege we gave him after he turned thirteen. I wait a minute just to be sure, and then I get a hair pin from the bathroom and pick the lock and open the door slowly so it won’t squeak. Not that a squeak would wake him, but there are still things that are different about him that I forget.
I want to log into ALEX’s main frame. I want to hunt down what went wrong like a dog hunting down a fox. The ALEX app’s functions are limited, and I haven’t been able to figure out if defiance and heightened self-awareness are a normal part of the Stage 4 Puberty Program.
My son is belly-down on his twin bed, arms outstretched and hanging over the edges. His mouth is open, and I can feel the softness of face, of his vulnerability, without even having to touch him.
I sit down at the swiveling desk chair and turn the computer on. I place my thumb on the password key, but nothing happens. I type in the backup password, and again nothing. I check if I accidentally hit CapsLock. An error message comes up and tells me that I have exceeded the maximum amount of password attempts. Another failed attempt will result in a temporary shut-down of the subject.
There’s a knock on the door frame. It’s my husband. He’s still in his work clothes, pressed khakis and striped button-up, badge clipped to his pocket.
“Something malfunctioned when I tried to upload his English Class essay on domestic violence,” I say.
He enters the room, sits on the mattress next to ALEX. ALEX’s body lifts and then settles. I can’t see his expression when he says, “Liar.”
I pretend I didn’t hear what my husband said.
I try booting the computer down and repowering it back on. This trick used to work all the time when ALEX froze or he got a bug.
But when I log back in, there’s a new username portal. One for ItsAlex847. One for Guest.
When I log in as Guest, there is just an empty desktop with the background text GET OUT OF MY HEAD.
I look to my husband.
“You heard him,” he says.
“Do you think he’s okay? Maybe we should wake him?”
“How would we do that?”
I spider my fingers down the cord that connects our son to the machine and let them rest on his ankle. There are wiry hairs where his foot turns into leg. I twist them between my thumb and forefinger. They feel real.
My husband doesn’t leave the room and neither do I. I join him on the bed.
My husband unclips his badge, slides his shoes off, says, “It’s funny. I don’t see myself in him.”
But he doesn’t know the parts of him I slipped into ALEX’s personality. Things I remember liking in my husband when we first met, before I had any idea we’d marry, before I really knew him at all. The way he was always grammatically correct in text messages – he’d even use semicolons. How at parties he always slipped beer bottlecaps into his back pocket, even ones that didn’t belong to him. How he’d talk to every dog he met on the street. I’d seen ALEX do that too, bending down towards the neighbor’s Yorkshire and tasseling her ears. Saying, “Howdy,” like we do, when we’re goofy.
I must have fallen asleep with my hand on ALEX’s ankle, because next thing I know the room is full of yellow light. Birdsong through the open window. Low clouds. Wet that clings to the bedsheets, the carpets, like the porch after a thunderstorm.
My husband is awake and watching me. His hair sticks up in the back.
ALEX is sleeping.
I look at my watch.
ALEX should be awake by now, but still ALEX is sleeping.
“We should dress him,” my husband says.
I nod, and we work together to lift his limp, fleshy torso, to pull off his white, cotton undershirt, to pull on his school polo, pull it over and around the angles of his elbows, his shoulders.
My husband lifts our sons’ legs, one at a time, so I can tug jeans up over his hips. Then, we each put a hand under an armpit and lift ALEX into the sitting position.
“Looking good, ALEX,” my husband says. “Now it’s time to wake up, or you’re going to be late for Calculus. We know how much you love Calculus.”
ALEX’s head lulls against his chest.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “ALEX works so hard, maybe we should just let him take a day off.”
“Maybe we should all take a day off,” my husband says.
We slump on the floor beside the bed, beside ALEX, over the covers, and lean our heads against each others. I can feel my husband’s warmth against my cheek. We haven’t slept like this in ages. ALEX rolls over and his hand lolls off the bed. I take it. I burrow my nose against his skin and breathe in. And realize, he smells just like us.
There is this fear I have of ALEX spontaneously shutting down. For the past few years there have been reports of humanoid sons and daughters on the fritz. Overheating errors. A drive that completely wipes itself. The constant whirring when a humanoid has maxed out his memory capacity. We’ve been trying to help ALEX by purchasing him a series of external drives for Calculus, for Physics and AP Lit and Honors Latin, that he can connect via USB during class. But in a couple of years we’ll have to make the choice whether or not or wipe him. Or, really, what to wipe. ALEX doesn’t have the capacity for childhood memories and college, for BALANCE and this new relationship he’s started with Heather, a biological from his Latin class. He doesn’t have room for Aerospace Engineering and Poetry and the Old Navy Employee Handbook and wondering what lies at the bottom of the ocean. I’ll have to take away almost everything I gave him in those early days. Take back what he no longer seems to want.
Thing is, I can’t access it as Guest.
I hate that word, Guest.
I consider hiring a hacker I find online. He quotes me ten thousand to re-personalize my son. Two thousand to wipe.
I erase my browser history.
I put my laptop into a drawer with a lock.
Pull out my phone since I can’t resist the internet.
I read humanoid horror stories on Facebook.
HELP! MY DAUGHTER RESTARTED AND I LOST EVERYTHING!
‘DAVID’ WAS DATAMINED. THEN MY WHOLE FAMILY WAS.
I BETATESTED FOUR NEW SONS AND NOT ONE COULD SURVIVE THIS SIMPLE MALWARE TEST.
MY DAUGHTER’S BATTERY WARPED. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WILL SHOCK YOU.
I curl into the oversized easy-chair in the den, the darkest, snuggest place in the house. I tap out an email to ALEX, apologizing for putting thoughts into his head. Tell him if he’s ready to have ‘the talk,’ we can discuss erasure options.
I sign off “Respectfully, Mom.”
A few hours later, I mute the television. From upstairs, I hear the creak of a bed.
ALEX and I go on a vacation to the western coast of Ireland.
We leave without telling my husband.
He thinks we’re going to school but really ALEX and I are getting on an airplane. Taking a suitcase I packed and hid surreptitiously in the trunk of my car.
I decide to give ALEX space on the flight over. I’ve told him this whole experience is about space – about finding your roots and running away from them at the same time. I imagine I can hear the music coming from inside ALEX’s ear but do my best not to lean on him, not even when I fall asleep, instead resting my head against the window.
ALEX wakes me up before the plane lands.
“Mom,” he says. “I’ve been thinking a lot and I know what I want.”
My phone pings. I open an email from ALEX and it’s a picture of an old typewriter.
“You want to go offline?”
He looks at me without blinking. “No more CDs, no more Apps. I want to be the only one inside my head.”
“I won’t be able to help you anymore,” I say. “I won’t know if you need help.”
He takes a breath. “I won’t erase anything without transcribing it first,” he says. “But I want you to know I’m going to keep some things. I’m going to keep the stuff about the ocean.”
He squeezes my hand like he’s the parent. He says, “I’m going to keep being mad at you.”
I look at him. I listen to the buzzing and snapping sounds his mechanical parts make.
“Okay,” I say.
We sit in silence a long time. He’s still squeezing my hand, and I’m trying to imprint that sensation into a permanent place in my body. I’m trying to imprint what it feels like, him looking at me deeply like this.
He says, “I’m going to keep what I love about you.”
I say, “Me too. What I love about you. You.”
When we land in Ireland, we take a cab to the cliffs. The wind is cold and wild. We lay our suitcase behind a rock. We break the rules about climbing and scale the rocks in our bare feet. We drink warm cups of soup and talk about what lies at the bottom of the sea.
I ask him what he really believes. What he wonders about.
This time, I listen.
Melissa Goodrich is the author of Daughters of Monsters and the collaborative collection The Classroom. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona, and her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Artful Dodge, The Kenyon Review Online, Necessary Fiction, Gigantic Sequins, and others. Find her at melissa-goodrich.com and tweeting @good_rib.
Dana Diehl is the author of the short story collection, Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK 2018). Her chapbook, TV Girls, also published in 2018, won the New Delta Review 2017-2018 Chapbook Contest. Her collaborative short story collection, The Classroom, was published by Gold Wake Press in 2019. Diehl earned her MFA in fiction at Arizona State University and her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She lives in Tucson.