Rob paused at the door. Pa had gone into his special grove, as he did most days. Sometimes he’d just go in, whisper a few words, and then quickly catch up to Rob. Other times he might spend a half an hour or more, silently staring at the ground and that little bit of granite. Or that is what he used to do. Rob hadn’t followed him back in there in a few years, at least since he was 10. Now almost 13, he knew better than disturb Pa in his special place.
Satisfied that Pa wasn’t right behind him, Rob put the numbers into the cipher lock.
Pa had built the little three-room entryway ages ago, just after the Collapse, but over the years, Rob had helped him flesh it out.
Still not seeing Pa, he let the door shut and lock. Nobody had ever tried to break in, at least not that he knew of, but there were crazies out there and there would be Hell to pay if Pa found the door open.
He shed his outer layer and put them in the special locker. A quick rinse of the hands, just to be sure, and he entered the second room. He stripped to his skin. This layer of clothes was put in a hamper. He took a quick shower, dried off, and went to the third room to put on his inside clothes. A second cipher lock at the old front door, another pause to see if Pa had come into the entryway and decon area yet, then into the house.
Rob had only seen the contaminants a few times that he could remember, and only in low levels, but you could never be too safe. Pa said there were days after the Collapse that you could die of exposure in just a few hours. Very little chance of that happening this many years later, but if any were brought in the house, it would be hard to remove, and it could accumulate.
And then, of course, there was Mom.
Nothing was ever said, but Rob guessed she had been exposed really bad. She never left the house and had some odd issues that he knew must have been caused by the toxins, or perhaps the bit of radioactive materials in the early days. Whatever, he knew that she couldn’t be exposed to any of it, not a nano-gram. She was already sick enough.
Mom was in the kitchen, as Rob had expected. She didn’t move much in the best of times, and hardly walked at all the last few weeks. It was odd, because she didn’t look any different. Pa always looked horrid when he was sick.
“Hello, Honey,” she said. “How was school today?”
School? Rob did his studies at home after dinner, but there hadn’t been any school since he was born, or none he knew about.
Her eyes squinted a little with her broad smile. “Are you hungry? Do you want me to fix you a peanut butter sandwich?”
Peanut butter was one of the few pre-Collapse foods that occasionally was still edible, but he hadn’t seen any in months.
“No, thank you.”
He suddenly realized that she was using a teaspoon to move water from one large bowl to another. Most was spilling out onto the floor.
“Mom, what are…”
She turned to him, her smile now slightly lopsided. “Hey handsome, do you want…” Her voice was odd.
Her face went back to normal. “…me to make you a peanut butter sandwich?”
“No thanks. Hold on a minute, I’ll be back.”
He reached the front door just as Pa was entering.
“Hey Rob, what’s up?”
“It’s Mom, she’s…”
Pa cringed, as if in pain.
“I told you she was sick, didn’t I? Well, I guess she got worse when we were out. Damn. I knew she was deteriorating, but…”
Pa shook his head then looked directly at Rob.
“Come help me get her to bed.”
When they entered the kitchen, she was still trying to spoon water out of the now empty bowl into the other. The floor was wet.
Pa touched her shoulder.
Her face changed to the odd lopsided grin.
“Dear,” he said again. “We need to get you to bed.”
“Hey, big guy, sounds fun. I’m randy and raring to go. Let’s…”
“Shhh,” Pa said. He touched her lips with a finger. Her face went back to her normal, natural state.
“OK, Rob, help on that side.”
Mom alternated between dragging her feet and doing over exaggerated motions of walking. Even with her almost hindrance, it didn’t take long to get her into the bedroom and sitting on the edge of the bed. She immediately started to take her shirt off.
“Dear,” Pa said, “wait until Rob leaves and I will help you get tucked in, OK?”
She paused, then nodded.
Unable to control himself, Rob flung himself at her. He hugged her and sobbed against her shoulder. At first she didn’t respond, but slowly lifted her arms and hugged back. It was a gentle touch, almost a caress across his back. After a minute or two, Pa put his hand on Rob’s shoulder.
“I love you Mom,” Rob said.
“It’s cold outside,” She answered. “Be sure to wear a jacket, OK?”
He pulled away.
“Robert,” Pa said, “go prepare a quick dinner for the two of us and I will get your mom tucked in, OK?”
Pa hadn’t said more than a word as he ate. Rob mostly played with his food, but kept shooting glances at his dad.
After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more and blurted out, “Is she going to, going to…?”
“Die?” Pa answered, then nodded. “I’m afraid she won’t last more than another day or two, though it might be hours. If it were the old days, before the Collapse, we’d be able to save her, but she’s been through too much and there is nothing at all we can do.”
“Why was she acting like that, saying those things? It’s just…”
“As she deteriorates, parts of her have been reverting back to… anyway, just know that as her body dies, it is affecting her mind as well.”
“But she looks so normal…”
“Yes, and she will continue to seem normal. But, she’s… I’m sorry, there is nothing at all we can do for her.”
Rob played with his food for a few minutes without eating any more.
“I’m not hungry. I’m going to my room.”
Pa nodded. “I understand. I’ll clean up and such. Don’t worry about studying, but if you want to read, I’ll be out in the living room later this evening.”
“There was a lot of amazing technology out there before the Collapse,” Pa said.
Rob looked up from the book that he was only half reading. Pa occasionally talked about the time-before, and Rob had seen quite a bit himself.
Pa wasn’t really looking at him as he talked.
“There were spaceships that landed themselves on planets a billion miles away and small autonomous airplanes that delivered packages. Self-driving cars were making a big splash and there were factories and warehouses that were completely automated, just needing the bare amount of supervision.”
He stopped for a second, then started to pick up his book. He paused, set the book down again.
“Some people complained about their jobs, but most were happy about all of the benefits. Hell, I had a little robot that vacuumed my house. And that was nothing. Robots did anything and everything, from dirty or dangerous jobs to highly skilled work, such as helping a surgeon make ultra-precise cuts that would be impossible by human hand. Yeah, the medical side of it was just amazing.”
That was it, Rob was sure. Pa’s reminiscing was because he knew that Mom could be healed if they were in the world before the Collapse. She’d be saved and wouldn’t die. That was it.
“Do you miss it?” he asked, half hoping Pa would admit that was why he had brought it all up.
“Miss it? Well, some of it, sometimes. Of course, all of this stuff I was talking about is part of what caused the Collapse in the first place. People were half dreaming as we destroyed our own world. I certainly don’t miss that side! But I do miss the people. I miss…”
Pa stuck his nose in the book, but Rob could tell he was holding back tears.
It was hard, knowing Mom was in the other room for what might be her last night. Very hard. He was on the verge of tears himself, but worked to keep them away.
Yeah, if only they were back in the time-before, everything would be alright.
Rob walked down an aisle of the large warehouse. He’d been in warehouses before, but they were decrepit things. They were often the first place looted after the Collapse since a lot of goods were gather under one roof.
The thing was, this one wasn’t in bad shape at all. The lighting still worked, so someone must have been caring for it.
The shelves that towered to the ceiling at least 25 up was what amazed Rob, though. They were filled with a lot of old technology from the time-before. He’d seen some of it, of course. A lot he’d run across was broken, or cannibalized to be used for other purposes. Some of it that proved useless to the survivors just sat like ghosts waiting to be started again. And, of course, Pa occasionally still turned on his computer and showed him stuff. The information thing, the Internet, had only lasted intermittently for a few months after the Collapse, but Pa had gathered a lot of information and photos. Rob guessed they were so he’d remember.
But these things in the warehouse were all new, stacked so high they almost disappeared above his head.
He wandered for a minute before hitting a cross aisle. Out of curiosity he turned down the new path, but stopped when he saw a movement on the second shelf just ahead.
It was Mom!
She had been lying down in a pile of old technology, but had pushed herself up so that her legs dangled from the shelf.
“Hello handsome,” she said. “Would you like me to make you a peanut butter sandwich?”
Rob opened his eyes with a start. It was only a dream.
Light was filtering into the room.
In just a few minutes he was in the kitchen. Pa had beat him and was getting breakfast ready.
“She’s still with us. I’ll take you in to see her before we leave to work.”
Mom was calm and beautiful. She didn’t stir at all when he entered, and he had to trust Pa that she was still alive since he didn’t see any breaths. Her face still had color, so he was sure that was a good sign.
Pa put his hand on Rob’s shoulder. He turned slightly to look up into his dad’s face. Pa just stared at the body on the bed, his expression almost as blank as her’s.
After a moment Pa said, “Ok, we need to get moving. There’s a lot to do today.”
Rob nodded and started to turn when Mom’s eyes flicked open.
“It’s cold outside. Make sure you wear your jacket, OK?”
Her eyes flicked shut.
“Yes, Mom,” he said. “I love you and we’ll talk this afternoon.”
Pa gave his shoulder a small squeeze. He could feel his dad turn to the door and, with one more look, followed him.
“I think her time is almost up. Come on in and say goodbye.”
It had been a hard day. He was sure his dad kept him busy to keep his mind off of Mom. Toward the end of the day, Pa had cut a small tree down. He stripped most of the branches off and cut the trunk into two six-foot lengths. He carried them with him when he went up to the special grove. He didn’t spend any time there since he caught up before Rob closed the and locked the outer door.
Rob had gotten dinner ready while Pa checked on Mom. He did things on automatic and barely gave thought to the fact that, as usual when he made dinner, it was just for the two of them. Mom usually ate when they were out working and perhaps snacked after he went to bed. Never with them.
Things were ready when Pa came in and asked him to say goodbye to his mother.
She was exactly as he had left her in the morning, calm and beautiful.
He put his hand on her exposed, bare shoulder. It was hard and cold, making the tears come sooner than he had wanted.
“Oh, Mom, I wish you didn’t have to leave us! I love you so much.”
As he was talking, Pa circled around to the other side of the bed, so he knew he could stay as long as needed.
He watched her for a few minutes, mostly just gazing at her perfect face. Occasionally he would whisper things to her, but mostly it was silent.
But in a little bit he knew the time had come.
“Good bye Mother. I love you.”
Her eyes snapped open, causing both him and Pa to jump. Pa seemed even more surprised them him. She turned her head slightly towards Rob.
“Good bye, Robbie. It’s cold outside. Make sure you wear your jacket, OK? “
“And remember. Remember each time you go out. Not just the jacket, but that I want you to wear it, OK?”
Her eyes snapped closed.
Rob stared at her still form for a moment. Pa took the opportunity to compose himself, then walked around and placed a hand on Rob’s shoulder. He nodded, knowing what his dad was saying without him having to use words.
“Goodbye,” he said, then turn and left the room.
After eating in silence, Rob and Pa moved into the living room, both pretending to read, though Rob knew Pa wasn’t doing any better than he was.
Pa let out a single humorless laugh causing Rob to look at him.
“Sorry, Rob, I was just thinking of a special I saw shortly before the Collapse. There was a big company that made, well, you’re a bit young, so I will just say they did stuff for adult entertainment. Anyway, they had a new robot that they said had the most advanced artificial intelligence of any autonomous robot ever, and surely the best of any humanoid robot.”
He laughed again and shook his head.
“This was designed to be just like a person, good enough to fool people who didn’t know any better, no matter, uhm, no matter how intimately they got to know the robot. It had artificial skin that looked and felt real. And it did look and act like a person, or at least from the perspective of, ah-hum, adult entertainment.”
He shook his head again.
“It seems that some rich idiots would pay a handsome sum of money to spend a night to fulfill their fantasy with what was to all appearances a famous movie star, one they called ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Not just that, some even richer and lonelier guys could actually get a special version as a companion. Imagine that, spending more money than I made in my entire life to have a beautiful but artificial woman live with you, sleep with you when you wanted. Ha.”
He picked up his book and pretended to read for a few seconds before lowering it again.
“When I saw that special on the sex-bot was when I really believed that the Collapse was actually coming and wasn’t too far away. I had laughed at the so called ‘preppers’, but I became one myself, which is why we are still alive.”
He picked up his book and really started to read.
Rob shivered a little. He had seen quite a bit of the time-before automation, but an artificial person? He shivered again.
Rob was in his father’s study. The computer was on, which as a rarity. The picture of a woman filled the screen. He had seen this woman many times before, but always as a photo on the screen of Pa’s computer.
This wasn’t a picture, though, it was moving.
“Robbie…” The woman was speaking directly to him!
But the screen went blank.
“No, I want to see her,” he said.
The screen came back, but it was Mom on the screen, not the other woman.
“Don’t forget your jacket.”
Before he could answer, his father reached over and turned off the computer.
He jerked awake.
The room was just beginning to fill with light. It was morning.
Pa had beat him to the kitchen again and had breakfast ready.
They didn’t say anything as they ate, but Pa looked grim.
“Rob,” Pa said as he started to clean up. “That will keep. Your Mom didn’t make it through the night.”
Rob froze in place. A cold chill went up his spine. He had expected it, but it was still a shock.
“Let’s go in and take a look.”
Mom was lying on top of the covers. She had a dress on that Rob had never seen. It was short and the material was shiny.
“That is what she had on the first time I saw her,” Pa said. “She was also wearing this.” He held up a diamond studded gold necklace. “I assumed that it was fake.” He shrugged. “But then, perhaps not. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. It is beautiful.”
He slipped the necklace around Mom’s neck and took a second to arrange it so it looked good.
“Did you dress her like this to… uhm… to bury her?”
Pa stood still, as if not hearing, looking at Mom. Before Rob could get too worried, he finally said. “Bury her. Yeah, that’s why.” He looked up at Rob. “Come on, we have a job to do.”
They walked into Pa’s special grove, each carrying a spade. Pa went over to the little granite stone and bowed his head.
“I hope you understand,” he said. “She was a good mother. And, and, a good companion. I hope you don’t mind.”
A few feet away he marked out the boundaries, then started by removing the turf.
Rob stared at the book he was trying to read, but his mind kept drifting back to three days before when his mother had passed away.
They had made an improvised stretcher using an old blanket and the two 6-foot poles Pa had made the day before. In their little grove, Pa had sewed Mom into a cocoon with another blanket. They had said a few words and their final goodbyes and then buried her.
The less Rob thought about that, the better.
But then it was home to the empty house. She had always been there his entire life. There was a void where she used to be, something he couldn’t fill.
And that was it. It wasn’t anything she did, for, being sick throughout his life, she did very little. It was that absence.
Pa might have noticed his restlessness, for he cleared his throat to get Rob’s attention.
“You know she wasn’t your real mother, or, maybe I should say, your biological mother, don’t you?”
Rob had wondered who was buried in the grove, but always shied away when the idea that it could be his mother came up. He shook his head.
“I hate to be this blunt. I’m sorry. I meant to tell you before. On the other hand, I never expected her to last this long.”
Pa looked down for a minute, as if deep in thought, but soon looked at Rob again.
“The Collapse was a long time coming and many saw the writing on the wall, but I think it took all of us by surprise by how quickly things happened once ‘the event’ really started. We most likely would have avoided Meg being pregnant if we had known. But we didn’t know, so you were born just a month after that awful day when everything went down.”
Rob nodded. He knew he had been born just after the Collapse, though he had never heard his dad call Mom “Meg”.
“It was difficult, but we scraped by. But Meg didn’t fully recover from the birth. She gave milk for a couple of months, but by the time you were three months, it was not near enough to feed you and so we had to improvise and wean you off. By four months, she was very sick and passed away before you were six months old.”
Rob was in shock. His real mother had passed away before he was six months old? But he had known Mom his entire life!
Pa nodded, as if guessing Rob’s thoughts.
“Yes, it was awful. I knew it was coming and had tried to prepare, but nothing prepares you. I hate to admit it, but after she was gone I often left you alone for hours at a time since I couldn’t risk you outside as I scrounged for survival. But I tried to make it up, staying up late, talking to you, playing with you.”
Pa took a drink of water and acted like he was trying to figure out how to continue.
“And Mom, what about Mom?”
Rob felt awful for blurting it out, but he had to.
Pa smiled, but it was a painful expression, not one of mirth.
“As I was saying, it was a hard time,” Pa said. Rob settled back, knowing his dad was going to continue his story and not directly answer his question. “Part of it was getting supplies together to survive. Not just food, nor even things for the short term, but six months out I was thinking of the years ahead. Solar cells and batteries. Building material. More. Thing is, everyone else was doing the same, and a lot of the people who you’d run into weren’t very friendly. It was to the point that those of us who would benefit by collaborating didn’t trust anyone and so we each fended for ourselves, avoiding all others.”
Rob nodded. They had neighbors and often worked together, but even almost 13 years out from the Collapse, there was still a lot of distrust.
“Not too far from here there was a walled compound. The walls were topped by an electric fence. Signs warned of a potentially lethal charge in this fence. There were alarms and dogs. Maybe a month or two after Meg passed away, I noticed that the wall had been breached. A few days later I made a foray into the compound.
“Someone had obviously ransacked the place, destroying what they couldn’t take. Luckily, they had little skill or knowledge and there was a huge amount that was salvageable. I figured I would take some of the better remaining bits of the alarm system and as much of the power equipment as possible.”
They did have an impressive power system, and Rob now guessed that at least part of it came from this compound.
“I went into a utility closet and saw movement. I knew what it was immediately. My first instinct was to destroy it, yet she cowered when she saw me. Even if I was the type to wreck things out of hand, she looked so alive and frightened, the only thing I could do was offer her my hand.
“I talked to her, calmed her down. When it seemed fine, I took a quick inventory and started dismantling the things I would take that day. She followed me around and chattered, so I kept up my side, just to be polite, even though she wasn’t real, wasn’t a person. She seemed real, though, so when I was ready to go, I made sure she had a safe place to hide and that her power needs were also protected. And I left.”
Pa took a drink of water and sat for a minute, not saying anything. Rob just stared at him. He knew of the time before wonders, but his dad never really talked about his personal experience with anything quite like this one.
“Anyway, a few days later I went back to get more stuff. The place had been knocked over once again, but these people did a more thorough job of destruction. I thought they must have taken or destroyed her as well, but she came out of hiding and greeted me, telling me how much she had missed me when I was away. She sounded sincere, if that meant anything. She continued to talk as I tried to figure out what could be salvaged. There was actually more than I suspected on first observation, but so much was beyond repair; a crying shame. When I was packed up and ready to head out, she pleaded with me to stay. Even if I wanted to, there was you, still back at the house. But something about her pitiful state changed me. I would take her, though I’d have to leave a lot behind.
“It was not an easy hike! She was not made for long walks and was as clumsy then as she was years later. About two thirds of the way home, she fell and couldn’t get up. I hid everything that I had and carried her the rest of the way. She was obviously totally drained, so why I didn’t leave her, I’ll never know. But I did get her home and set her down on the couch. After a rest and making sure you were doing fine, I went back for the stuff I had hidden. When I got back, I discovered that she wasn’t completely drained – she was sitting with you in her lap. She was making cooing noises and gently stroked your hair. You were happier than I’d seen you since Meg had died.”
Pa turned away for a moment. Was he wiping tears from his eyes? After a moment he continued, but looked more at his lap than at Rob.
“Obviously I had to make a few more trips back to get all of the equipment to keep her charged and running. There was quite a bit, and we can dismantle and try to repurpose it later. And that was it. She stayed. You grew attached almost immediately and over the years, well, I am sorry, Meg, but over the years, so did I.”
“No, it can’t be,” Rob yelled.
He ran into his room and closed the door.
His mom couldn’t have been an object made for, as Pa put it, “adult entertainment”. She had to have been more!
As he lay there, so much of their life started to make sense in a way it hadn’t before. All of those oddities had nothing to do with her being exposed. It was something else. But how could it be?
Exhausted, he soon fell asleep.
After a long day working in the fields and gardens, Pa stopped in at the special grove, as usual.
Pa stood, head bowed, in front of the little granite marker.
“Does your computer still work?” Rob asked.
“Uhm, yes. Why?”
“After dinner tonight, can you show me some pictures of my.. of my.. of her?” He nodded towards the small granite stone that he now knew marked Meg’s grave.
Pa smiled. “Of course. You look a lot like her.”
Rob nodded, then turned towards the new grave.
“We’ll need to find a good marker,” he said.
“Yes, we will,” Pa said.
Rob started to sob. “I loved her so much and thought she loved me. But how could she? Could one of those love a person?”
Pa was silent for a minute, then said, “It’s cold outside. Make sure you wear your jacket, OK?”
Pa put his hand on Rob’s shoulder. “It’s cold outside. Make sure you wear your jacket. Remember?”
Rob looked at the clumps of sod that attempted to cover the new soil. He thought of her pleading eyes as she said, “And remember each time you go out. Remember I said this.” He looked up at Pa. There were tears in his eyes.
“I will remember,” Rob said.
Pa gave him a squeeze.
“Good. Let’s go in,” he said. “It’s been a long day.”