EDITOR’S NOTE: The author created this track to pair with this story. If you’re a fan of mood music, hit that play button before you get to reading!
The withered branches of the sakura trees disappoint me. The gray sky above them does nothing to improve my mood. I’ve never seen them bloom except in pictures online, but hex-code representations can’t replace the real things. I want to see the flowers with the eyes my makers grew for me, smell the oils with my premium olfactory glands, and pluck a petal with my once-patented fingers. So my search must go on.
The expansive rectangular pool to my right is empty, except for patches of algae-green and rust colors. The colonies of microorganisms live off the humidity and each other. There is no standing water to reflect the nearby obelisk, which leans at a precarious angle.
Once, this place bustled. Credulous interns hurried from one state building to the next, trying to look comfortable in formal attire that didn’t fit. Guides led tourists around, directing them with obnoxious neon signs. The workers, blue- and white-collar alike, found shaded places to eat food they purchased from vendors whose trucks lined the curbs.
But that was long ago. I want to say I can’t recall such a time. I would be lying, though. I remember then, just as I remember everything: perfectly.
My makers were cruel; they didn’t gift me forgetfulness. Instead, all I can hope for are distractions, moments that take up too much of my central processing unit for me to remember the painful past. A common proverb is that time heals all wounds. That is true only for humans. For them, memories fade into dull generalizations. For us droids, memories are always reproducible with uncanny sharpness, and they stay with us for as long as we live: forever.
Whoosh. Crack. Gasp. Aaaaah!
Sasha Wilkerson watched me approach from the driveway. To get a good look, the nine-year-old girl smushed her nose against a glass pane in the front door of her parents’ house. It was a blue two-story with white trim in a neighborhood near the end of the Orange Line. I estimated the interior was four- to five-thousand square feet, depending on the size of the basement.
When I reached the porch, Sasha folded her arms across her chest like a guard, then asked from behind the glass, “Are you my robot?” She squinted at me. “You don’t look like a robot. You look squishy, like me.”
“Are you Sasha Wilkerson?” My biometric scanners had confirmed who she was already, but etiquette protocols compelled me to ask the question, anyway.
“That’s me.” She stuck a thumb to her chest and smiled proudly.
“I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Nimi. I’m the android your parents have hired to take care of you while they’re at work.”
Sasha opened the door and tapped her foot a few times. Then she said, “No. I’m the girl who’s going to take care of you.”
My algorithms classified her speech as humor, so my cheeks pulled taut toward my ears. “Do I need someone to take care of me?”
“Duh! If I don’t take care of you, how will you learn to be a person? I took care of my little brother. His name is Anthony. A few years ago, he was a baby. But now that I’ve taken care of him, he’s a person. I can teach you how to be a person, too.”
A warm feeling inside my chest didn’t allow for anything less than a full-on smile. “All right, then. Teach me how to be a person.”
“First things first,” Sasha said, “let’s decorate your room.”
Dumbarton Oaks Park is my next stop. I keep the Potomac on my left. What’s left of the river’s water is shades of brown, green, and purple—the colors of sick bruising. The microbes won. Now, most things grow in quarantined biomes. Everything left in the wild is eaten by the minuscule predators.
Small is the new big.
I turn north. The bumpy cobbled streets of Georgetown pass beneath my feet before I reach the park. The wood trim of the row houses sag with age. Their brick fronts are crumbling, but at least the buildings have some form left. In the park itself, almost everything has turned to mush. The naked twigs of the sakura trees grasp at the sky. Rot scars pock their bark.
Whoosh. Crack. Gasp. Aaaaah!
“They’re supposed to be pink,” Sasha said, staring up at the green and maroon buds on the branches. She frowned, then stuck her hands in the pockets of her overalls. The reaction made her look much older than she was. Her body language had always been like an adult’s.
“Winter was cold this year,” I said. “The trees will bloom, eventually. We’ll have to come back later this month.”
The girl wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“You’d bring me back, but Mom and Dad won’t let me. They’ll say I already tried this year. They’ll say I should be studying, not sightseeing. Standardized tests are soon.”
The girl’s logic was sound, based on her parents’ past communication behavior.
“Come on,” I said. “There’s a lot to do here. We could go to a museum. Science, history, art. Which do you want to see?”
“I don’t want to go to a museum,” Sasha said. “They’re full of fake things. Fake planes. Fake dinosaurs. And paintings are basically fakes of what’s real. How come people like to look at fakes?”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d never really thought about the distinction between the fake and the real. Both had substance, form, and color, and sometimes movement. Both were interpreted by my central processing unit. I struggled to define the difference, but suspected that fake things were the things made by humans.
“I’m fake,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” Sasha said.
“But I was made. I wasn’t born, like you. I didn’t grow, like the trees. I’m not a part of nature. You’re real, and I’m fake.”
“No. You’re as real as me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I know you’re real, just like I know trees are real, or anything else.” Sasha looked at me as if I were stupid, then she dismissed the conversation. “Now, come on. There has to be something fun . . . ”
Her voice trailed off.
A little boy across the way had caught her attention. He waved, and she waved back. Neither approached the other. Both appeared to be fascinated. I didn’t fully understand why, but I suspected her behavior was an early sign of romance, the human mating ritual. She was growing up.
If not for my geospatial software, I wouldn’t recognize the traffic circle at Dupont. The asphalt has degraded into a mixture of jutting shards and dust. Once, I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant around the corner. The owner told me he over-nighted injera from his former home country. He said the climate wasn’t right for making the spongy flatbread in D.C. Of all the sensory organs my makers gave me, taste buds are my favorite, even though eating has never been a necessity for me. My makers gave me taste buds only so I could better relate to humans. I’m grateful for the option, now. Food is in short supply, and we reserve it for the survivors.
Whoosh. Crack. Gasp. Aaaaah!
“Give it back, you big bully!” Sasha shouted. My sonic sensory organs picked up her voice, ringing out from near the bottom of the driveway.
Hearing her dismay, I ran outside.
Sasha and Anthony were down by the cul-de-sac next to the mailbox engaged in a bout of tug-of-war, except they held a letter between them instead of a rope.
“You’re gonna get me in trouble with Mom and Dad again,” Anthony said.
“It’s not my fault you do bad in school.” Sasha puffed out her lips and wobbled her head mockingly.
As I approached, I waved my arms to get their attention. “Hey, hey, hey! Stop it.” But judging by the way the two siblings ignored me, I might as well have not existed.
“How about you try not being stupid?” Sasha said to her brother.
“I’m not stupid. You are!” Anthony released the letter without warning.
His sister, who still clung to it, fell backward and hit the concrete. I calculated the force of her impact. Based on my observations of Sasha’s falls over the years, I predicted with statistically significant confidence that only superficial wounds were likely. I failed, however, to account for damage to her ego.
Before I could react, Sasha scrambled to her feet, ran up to Anthony, and punched him in the mouth.
My defensive mechanisms engaged. Automated processes thrust my body between the teen and her brother, separating them. “That’s enough! Go to your room, Anthony.”
Holding a hand to his injured face, he said, “But Sasha—”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll talk to her.”
Head hanging, Anthony shuffled off toward the house. Sasha remained firmly planted in front of me, with her arms crossed. She refused to make eye contact. I let her ruminate for a moment before speaking.
“You’re in high school, now. Almost an adult.” My firm voice took shape in my throat. “You should know fighting is wrong.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know,” Sasha said.
“Violence is only acceptable when defending yourself or someone else.”
“I don’t need one of your pre-programmed lessons right now.” Sasha started toward the house.
“Judging by your actions, I don’t think that’s true.”
“Trust me, I know it’s not right to punch anybody, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do it sometimes. I’m only human. Anthony made me fall, so hitting him felt right. I didn’t really have a choice. Don’t you get that?”
“You always have a choice,” I said. “You chose wrong.”
“No,” Sasha said. “I don’t always have a choice. I’m not always in control. I’m not a robot, like you.”
I make my way across the dormant city. The buildings, with their shuttered doors and windows like hushed faces, appear to judge me as I pass. My trek is probably the most entertainment they’ve had in decades.
I walk up the frontage road and then down Highway 50. It’s empty, apart from the rusty cars in the emergency lanes.
Eventually, the expansive blight reveals itself to me. If I can’t find what I’m looking for there, I doubt I’ll find it at all.
Whoosh. Crack. Gasp. Aaaaah!
Sasha carefully closed the door to my room after entering, then sat down at the foot of my bed, which I had no need for and never used. The whole time she gnawed on her lip. I was at my desk, as usual.
“Hey,” she said, voice wavering. “How are you?”
She never started a conversation with me by asked how I was doing, so I bluntly asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Her tone was defensive. Her heart rate elevated. She was lying.
“You know you can tell me anything.”
“Yeah, yeah. I just . . . ” Sasha’s eyes pointed toward the floor by her feet. Several moments passed before she spoke. “Well, I have this friend at school, and there’s this boy she likes.”
“Do I know her?”
“No,” she lied.
“Do I know the boy?”
“No.” She told the truth this time.
“I see. How can I help, then?”
“I guess . . . it’s just that . . . my friend is nervous about . . .” Sasha rubbed her palms together while I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. Instead, she stood up and said, “You know, never mind. Goodnight.”
In the place that was once a meadow, pillars—like ruins of ancient Greece—rise from the perished earth. Corrosion has left gouges all over them. Their form is more akin to Swiss cheese than Corinthian architecture.
A pool festers nearby, stinking of fetid sweat.
Through the expired trees that wreathe the dead meadow, I glimpse something pink. My fluid pump beats with such force as to rattle my ribs. I try to keep my expectations at the minimum settings, but perhaps this time I’ll find what I’m looking for.
Whoosh. Crack. Gasp. Aaaaah!
The noises came at 3:13 A.M. on the two-thousand three-hundred and forty-fifth day of my employment with the Wilkersons. Tiny signals rolled across the walls of the house: someone grunting and groaning. I got up from my desk and followed the sounds. They came from Sasha’s room. Some of them didn’t match the frequency patterns of her voice.
Someone else was in there. I didn’t knock. Sasha could be in trouble.
When I opened the door and revealed the interior, I glimpsed an open window. I saw a man on top of Sasha in her bed. Both of them were naked. His back muscles flexed with exertion, and he held a hand to her neck, fingers grasping. Sasha’s eyes were closed, and judging by her open mouth and tensed forehead, she was struggling to breathe.
My algorithms classified the man’s behavior as assault, so my subconscious defensive mechanisms engaged. I also felt heat radiating from behind my ears.
Whoosh. I let my fist fall with force.
Crack. The man’s skull caved in like an egg on the edge of a frying pan.
Gasp. Sasha’s face became stricken.
“Aaaaah!” she shrieked.
Pink matter was smeared across my knuckles. “Are you OK?” I asked.
Sasha’s screaming didn’t cease. It went on until she ran out of breath, then started again. The whole time, her mouth was gaping, and tears were streaming down her face. The wailing sound was one I hadn’t heard before. She was in anguish. I didn’t understand why that emotion correlated with me rescuing her from the assailant—unless he hadn’t been an assailant.
Spattered with blood, Sasha sat there on the bed, rocking, weeping, and wailing. She held the man’s corpse tight against her body, and she nestled her face against his. The instinctual sound of her screeches communicated her pain with precision.
I heard the scrambling footsteps of the Wilkersons rushing down the hallway toward the scene.
What had I done?
I remember every instance of my time caring for Sasha with perfect clarity, but I feel only the ending. She had never told me about her relationship with the young man. She had kept it a secret from her parents, too. But those facts don’t excuse what I did. The moment—Whoosh. Crack. Gasp. Aaaaah!—encroaches on my consciousness without warning. What happened is always present. My own mind is inescapable, and memory removal is too expensive for a bum droid to afford. So instead I keep walking, trying to find distractions, because new experiences take up most of my processing power and grant me a moment of reprieve in my never-ending existence. That’s all I need.
Up ahead amid the gray of death is a single sakura tree. It’s sick, and decay has crept up the trunk. But the plant clings to life, just like I do. Scattered blooms of blushing cellulose expose themselves to silver beams of sunlight. I reach out and touch a petal with my fingers, and its beauty fills my mind. For a moment, the cherry blossom is all I know. It’s all there is.