Deirdre was a coward.
The coffee warmed her chilled hands. She adjusted her glasses, hoping the frames would disguise the circles under her eyes. At a nearby table, a child was staring at her while the parents spoke to one another. The parents, they were engaged in such a lively conversation together.
They were such a happy couple. Deirdre found that it was hard to keep herself from coughing.
She tried not to make eye contact with the little boy. Because just beyond the boy was a man about her age, sitting alone. He was facing an offline hologram. His coffee must have been getting cold, and yet he sat there, patiently waiting for his date to come back. Deirdre didn’t think the man knew he was being scammed. Those online sessions were expensive; they charged by the minute. The café was a hotspot for such cons, and Deirdre had seen several of them play out in similar ways.
However, she couldn’t bring herself to go tap the man on his shoulder and let him know. She just couldn’t involve herself. She wished she hadn’t even noticed.
“Hey, why don’t we eat outside today? The weather’s amazing.” Behind her, Chester gestured out to the city.
The rest of her coworkers gave a general hum of agreement. Deirdre followed them, with one last look to the lonely man in the booth.
On their way out of the café, the news tablets flickered. Deirdre glanced down. The only headline she caught was the new model of android going to be released in the coming year. A tickling sensation crept up the back of her throat, and she resisted the urge to cough.
“Can you believe the price of those new immersive VRs? The pilot program only ended last winter,” Alfonso was saying. “I mean, if you ask me, the whole thing was rushed. I’d be scared to put on any of that equipment.”
Victoria sat down and relaxed in her chair, apparently enjoying the sunlight. “Hey, that’s what you said about the caretaker androids. They turned out alright, didn’t they? Look; there’s one now, helping an old lady across the road.” She gestured to the crosswalk at the corner of the block.
They all chuckled at the sight, except for Deirdre, who was trying not to cough. She remembered she had a coffee and tried to drink it to soothe her throat. The scene was typical. Androids had a distinctive enough countenance, but from afar, the only identifier was the uniform. They all watched the figure in the sleek gray jacket accompany an elderly woman to the sidewalk.
“Yeah, they’re alright. They’re going to survive us, you know. They’ll be here long after we’re all gone.” Alfonso crossed his legs and shook his head, with that wry smirk of his. The cross he wore glinted on his chest. “Say, Deirdre, haven’t you got one?”
Deirdre blinked. “One what?” She hadn’t realized how hard she was clutching her cup, or how much her posture had drooped.
The other three shared wry smiles. “An android,” Chester prompted her. “You have an android, right? One of those housekeeper models?”
Traffic picked up beside the café. Across the street, an old man was sweeping out the front deck of his shop. “Oh. Yeah.” Deirdre mumbled, trying to talk over the sudden scratching of her throat. “Yeah. One of the — the second editions. Been around for a while.” She took a sip of her coffee, mostly to have an excuse to stop talking. The beverage had lost its soothing heat.
Chester gave a small chuckle. “I bet the payments on that sucker are fun. So, what, she just keeps your house all tidy? What does she do when she’s done? Power off or something? Or does she just stand there? That would creep me out, if it were me.” His smile told her that he was kidding, at least partially.
They all watched her carefully for an answer. Deirdre set down her cup. “He,” she murmured, staring at the table.
“Sorry?” Chester tilted his head.
“He. David is a he,” Deirdre said. “He tells me that when I’m gone, he enjoys tending to the flowers on my balcony.”
A young couple left the café. Deirdre watched them go, eyeing their joined hands. She rubbed her throat. The tickling feeling became more insistent, and she felt as if her esophagus was swelling up. She wasn’t unaware of her coworkers’ strange looks.
“Enjoy? Androids can’t enjoy. Come on, Deirdre, you know that,” Chester scoffed.
“A customizable housekeeper. What else are they going to automatize?” Alfonso sat back, going off on another one of his tangents. “You know, the other day, I called my favorite mechanic place. They’re closing down. Know why? Magnus Systems came out with a new android specifically designed for car maintenance this past year, and they can’t compete anymore. I read an article that said they were talking about programming android plumbers. What then? Farmers are already being outdone. Human labor is losing its value. Sure, our rates of productivity are the highest ever across world history. But guess what. So is unemployment! Who exactly is benefitting from all of this?”
They all knew to tune Alfonso out once he really got going.
Victoria turned to look at Deirdre again. “It’s not unusual to be attached to an android. Giving them a name and getting one of those downloadable personalities makes it really easy for them to feel real.” She laced her fingers together, watching Deirdre with those pretty dark eyes of hers. “What did you say his name was, David?”
David. Hearing the name gave her chest a rush. “Yes. David,” she uttered. Her throat caught. She wasn’t supposed to be reacting like this. She lowered her head and tried to get her breathing under control.
“My mom’s got one. A caretaker model. She kind of talks to it like a pet.” Chester tapped his chin, looking out to the street where the bus stop had lit up. “She gave it one of the more reserved personalities. I also know a guy who basically programmed a whole custom personality for his android, modeled completely after a celebrity. Weird, huh?”
They were talking, but their voices were becoming distant. Or muddled. She couldn’t focus on them very well.
Victoria leaned forward, fixing Deirdre with a heavy stare. “Hey, are you feeling alright? You haven’t been looking so good this past week, hon. Your skin is really pale.” She was always so perceptive. As soon as she spoke, both Chester and Alfonso turned to look at her.
The pressure of their eyes on her was greater than gravity. Deirdre folded her arms. The tickling came back, at the base of her throat. “Maybe you should go back home and have David look after you,” Victoria suggested, gently.
No. She was going to be sick. Her face felt hot, but her blood was cold. They were all sitting there watching her, asking and prying. The tickling became too much.
Before she could help it, Deirdre coughed.
Her throat felt raw from coughing so much before. The force wracked her body. Her lungs burned, her chest ached. It all caught in her throat.
They had all gone quiet to watch her, silent concern in their eyes. Of course they did. Her hands flew to her mouth.
Even the traffic noise had faded. All she could hear was the blood roaring in her ears. There was movement in front of her. A single petal. A little pink petal, twirling delicately to and fro before it landed on the table. The breeze swept it off the table and down the city streets.
Someone must have seen it. Everyone saw it; they must have.
How could they miss it?
“Excuse me,” she muttered, pushing out her chair. She had to leave.
The sound of several metal chair legs sliding along cement grated on her ears. She almost stumbled over herself. “Deirdre, wait!” Chester called out to her. The other customers sitting outside the café turned to watch. “Hey, where are you going? Come back!”
Bathroom. She had to find a bathroom. No, that wasn’t an option; she couldn’t possibly clean it all up before someone else saw. She had to go hide. Go somewhere without any risk of being seen. Her vision went white as soon as she was up. Her balance was off. The rush in her throat told her she didn’t have much time.
She clambered out past the café and turned away from the main road. There had to be a back way somewhere. She struck the corner of the block and whipped her head around. There wasn’t time. Clutching her stomach with one arm, and with the other hand over her mouth, she took off in a clumsy run.
Passersby were looking at her. Children were pointing. The voices and the traffic and the airplane overhead and the sound of her own breathing were all too much. She couldn’t focus on anything but the desire to get away. She searched desperately for an alleyway to duck into, but she didn’t watch for what was in front of her.
She sensed the presence too late. In an instant, she collided with an android. She knew because of the programmed response and because of the forceful grip on her shoulders. She would have struck the ground if the android hadn’t caught her.
“Hello, friend. I apologize for being in your way. Are you alright?” The android scanned her face, her expression. “You are agitated. May I help?”
“No, I’m — I’m fine.” Deirdre tore herself away. Her voice was thick. “I have to go.”
Just across the narrow lane she ran through was a back way to a strip mall. Deirdre steered herself into it and staggered right into a dark corner.
Her chest heaved. Her stomach curdled. Her throat seized up, and she vomited all over the ground. She couldn’t breathe. It was all stuck in her throat. Her body made every effort to reject everything in her stomach, but she knew it was futile. Her tears were hot. Her mouth was bitter; it made her want to gag more.
The pressure didn’t ease up for several moments. She was sure her face was practically purple from being unable to breathe. Gradually, her chest began to relax. Her stomach felt weak.
“Jesus,” she heard a voice mutter behind her. Her body was in too much shock to be startled. She recognized Alfonso. “What the hell, it’s all…”
So they had followed her. “Flowers,” Victoria supplied, numbly.
Deirdre opened her eyes and looked down at the mess beneath her. The flowers sprouting and dying at her feet. The petals that had nearly choked her. The breeze stirred, and the air in the shade was cold. Her body was hot, but she shuddered anyway.
“Why is she… I mean, why is it…” Chester spoke up. Even without looking at him, Deirdre knew he was gesturing in circles in an attempt to find words. “How did she do that?” he finally managed to ask.
Victoria took in a long breath. “She’s sick,” she said.
No footsteps. They wouldn’t dare to come near her. “The hell kind of disease is that?” Alfonso’s tone was quiet.
“I think I’ve heard of this before. Throwing up flowers. I thought it was a myth.” Chester shifted behind her.
Deirdre wiped at her mouth with a shaky hand. She couldn’t push off the wall. She didn’t have the strength left.
“It’s called the Hanahaki disease. Her lungs are growing flowers because she loves someone who doesn’t love her back.” Victoria’s voice was muffled, like she was holding a hand over her face.
There was a beat of silence. The question hung in the air because none of them wanted to ask. Deirdre tried to swallow, but part of a stem was still caught at the back of her throat.
Chester was the one who dared. “Who is she — who are you in love with, Deirdre?”
She couldn’t find her voice. Closing her eyes, she rested her elbow against the cold brick wall. The truth hurt more than the flowers in her chest.
“David,” Victoria answered instead, her voice cutting clear through the thick air. “I think it’s David.”
“It is almost beautiful, if you think about it.”
They stood, looking down at the mess before them, once Deirdre managed to get her feet underneath her.
She wavered. Her mouth was sour, and her head felt heavy. She was dehydrated. “What about this is beautiful?” she rasped, gesturing below them.
David’s slate-gray eyes narrowed as he scanned the toilet and the mass of blossoms blooming from inside. Thin, delicate vines crawled out, seeking light. The LED lights above wouldn’t be enough to sustain them. The flowers were growing and dying at the same time. Some of them were soft pink, others were yellow or blue or purple. She couldn’t have named them if she tried. The random path of the growing stems wandered out to the floor, to the walls, inside the tank, and toward the bathtub. Dead petals already floated listlessly in the toilet water.
She had thrown up an entire garden in her bathroom.
David simulated a deep breath. “It is beautiful, in a wretched way,” he finally answered her.
With a groan, Deirdre sought the wall and started to make her way out. “Yeah, okay. Whatever, you weirdo.” She gave a small, wry smile.
One benefit of living in a small apartment was the proximity of the bathroom to her bedroom. But the aftertaste of flowers and acid on her tongue was clouding her senses. She needed fresh air. The smell of the flowers threatened to upset her stomach enough to go again. She just had to get to the living area, turn on the Holovision, sit down; do anything to distract herself.
Her feet couldn’t handle her weight with her usual grace. She rested against the wall, guiding herself along, even though she was well aware that David followed close behind with a watchful eye.
She had refused his help countless times. However, she knew what was happening. Her body was getting weaker. Her chest was hurting more and more every day. But she couldn’t ask her android to help her accomplish ordinary functions.
No, she just couldn’t bring herself to.
She managed to get to the couch and all but collapsed onto the cool leather. A bowl of hot soup was waiting for her; no doubt David had anticipated her state. Of course, he probably had a thousand different courses of action ready to access in any event or emergency.
Deirdre sighed and waved the HV on. She had to remember to call Victoria and her other coworkers later to thank them for getting her back home. They had wanted to take her to a hospital, but she convinced them that David knew how to take care of her. Somehow, she had managed a smile and told them that her symptoms were entirely normal. A white lie. They would see through it later, if they hadn’t already. But none of their efforts would matter in the long term anyway.
She didn’t want them to worry.
“I will go clean the bathroom,” David informed her, with his perpetual smile. He did not have to wait for her confirmation.
Deirdre tilted her head back, once his purposeful stride took him down the hall, to look at the trash bags already sitting beside the kitchen counter. The angle hurt the back of her neck. The smell of the soup was heady, and her stomach was already upset.
“…The memorial, created for the scientist who created the first functioning android operating on a positronic brain, has been decorated to celebrate what would have been her 138th birthday. City guard androids performed a ceremony early this morning.” On the HV, the news covered some larger headlines. Deirdre found her gaze wandering to the window, to the beautiful weather outside.
Her skin craved sunlight. Her lungs longed for the air out there. But her body had already seen enough excitement for one day. She needed to recover.
She let out a long breath. It had also been a beautiful day when she had told David, all those months ago. The weather was never not perfect. Not since they constructed the artificial atmosphere and figured out climate control. She remembered the day itself vaguely, but the feeling of the sun on her back and the blood in her cheeks would remain with her to her grave.
She told him that she was in love with him.
Of course, she knew what to expect. She knew better than to get her hopes up. How could an android possibly return her feelings? He nodded as if she had told him any other ordinary fact. She watched the wind in his hair and the sun in his eyes. Nothing surprised him. Nothing could surprise him.
And it was ordinary. Almost like a story but not quite. The girl falls in love with whatever doesn’t love her back. Not exactly fairy-tale material, Deirdre thought, holding back a cough with her fist. Have you ever heard the one about the princess and the machine? It just couldn’t happen.
No, David was just there to perform his tasks. No magic kiss could awaken any feelings beyond his program. It was all data. The sun on his artificial skin was data, the park they looked upon together from their little bench was data. Her confession registered as data, just the same.
He had an interesting response. David was a critical thinker; he always had been, she had chosen him that way. He struck her, still, as being more self-aware than most androids she came across.
She remembered how he looked down at the grass, to the little butterfly flitting about their feet. He hadn’t learned how to sit naturally yet, so he was unnaturally still. His gray eyes focused in and out before he turned to look at her. “I can register the heat raising my synth skin to approximately 42 degrees Celsius. You can call that feeling sunlight. I can sense the gravitational force fluctuating wherever we go. You can call that feeling the earth beneath my feet. But my senses are different from yours. They provide empirical value. But to me, they have no meaning.”
Deirdre remembered that she hardly reacted. She had known all of this. She had from the very beginning, and yet she felt the sting anyway. “My feelings, they mean nothing to you,” she told him, looking back at the ground.
He shook his head. “No.” His stare was unwavering. She had gotten used to it; he was still learning to imitate conversational norms. “The sunlight on your skin and the earth beneath your feet make you happy in a way that it can’t do to me. I can see that your heart rate becomes faster and your pupils dilate, when you look at me. But that is all. I see, and I process. I cannot respond or reciprocate in any way that is, in your sense, genuine.”
After he looked away from her, she nodded. “Yes, I understand. It’s okay.” She spoke as if she had any reason to console him. Perhaps she was searching for some semblance of emotion. Some perceived guilt. “This is something that I can deal with.” She managed a smile and looked up at the sky.
Neither of them could have known that it would eventually kill her.
She looked up at the sound of the toilet flushing and brisk footsteps from down the hall. Another trash bag filled with dying flowers dropped beside the kitchen counter. The news continued to drone on the HV. “Would you like for me to take the trash out?” David asked her, clasping his hands behind his back.
Deirdre shook her head and sank back, holding her knees to her chest. “No. I don’t want anyone to see them.”
The thought in her head was of her neighbors going out on a whim and noticing the clear trash bag full of dead flowers. The apartment complex didn’t have a lawn. She didn’t live with anyone else who would have brought her flowers. There were too many questions that could be asked that she didn’t want to answer.
With that course of action denied, David went to sit across from her. “You should eat,” he suggested. “Your blood sugar levels are low. You also need the salt to restore electrolytes. It is still warm enough to soothe your throat.”
When she didn’t react except to stare at the table, David adjusted his posture. He remained silent for some measured period, no doubt just watching her. And waiting.
He could see her deficiencies, but he couldn’t possibly see the way her head spun as soon as she even thought about moving to get up again. The distance from the sofa to the table was so ordinary until she wanted to reach across it. Then it was chasmic. She thought about it, her hand hovering away from her chest, before she decided that she wouldn’t be able to hold the bowl.
David came in the next instant, offering the bowl to her. “I took the liberty of downloading a caretaker program,” he informed her, offering a perfectly balanced spoonful of soup close to her face. Deirdre was so startled that she felt tiny flowers bloom up in her stomach. “We must discuss the treatment options for your condition.”
Not about to let herself get fed like a child, Deirdre turned her face away. “Why would you go and do something like that? You know that comes out of my wallet, right?” She tried to sound annoyed, but the selfish, flowering side of her felt a quick thrill. He acted on his own accord on her behalf. It was almost like he actually cared.
He fixed her with a serious look. “I am aware of the cost, and I apologize for acting without your permission. However, I deemed it necessary to give myself the ability to take care of you. It is my primary directive; to preserve you.” The spoon remained an inch away from her mouth, despite her weak attempt to shift away. When she looked in his eyes, she was taken aback that his expression was troubled. “You must know what is happening to you.” His voice became quiet.
Yes. She did know. She felt the leaves and petals swell up, and she tried to swallow them back down. “I’m dying,” she said and finally opened her mouth to accept the spoon.
So he fed her like she was old and helpless, not like she had her whole life ahead of her. He fed her like she was losing her faculties and ambitions, not like she didn’t once dream of having a pretty house and a pretty garden — at least, not a garden that was growing inside of her. She knew, as she swallowed each bite, that she was being forced to accept the state she was in. David did this on purpose.
“The doctors can have the roots surgically removed from your lungs,” David began to explain, while she was busy eating and unable to interject. “But that will take away your capacity to feel. You could have periodic purges that will burn the plants and keep them under control. In the end, that treatment would only be more expensive and with the same outcome.”
He hesitated with the last spoonful. “Or, you could let the flowers run their course. They will grow and keep growing as long as you have feelings for me. Your heart will be constricted. The stems will split your body apart. You would choke before you feel any of that.” His tone was delicate and measured as always. He had become more sensitive to certain subjects that he perceived to be graver than others. He really had come very far in the time that she had known him. But he also knew that she wanted him to be truthful. So he did not try to sugarcoat the situation.
The last mouthful of broth went down her throat, though the relief was only momentary. The soreness and the stems were too persistent. “What would you do?” She shifted back, suddenly aware of how close he was kneeling beside her and how rapid her heart rate had become. “It would be rational to get the surgery, right?”
David didn’t move. “If it were me?” he asked, and Deirdre nodded. “Yes. It is rational to get the surgery to remove the roots. But that is because I would not lose anything.”
The news murmured on behind him. Deirdre happened to glance at a bird chasing a delivery drone passing by her window. She could tell by David’s refocusing pupils that he had something more to say.
He opened his mouth and then closed it again. His response was loading. Or he was hesitating again. “If I were you,” he began, and then stopped again. His eyebrows twitched. He wouldn’t look directly at her. “If I were you, I would not get the surgery.”
Deirdre blinked. “Sorry?”
His eyes finally focused on her with his distinctly mechanical magnitude. “I would not get the surgery,” he repeated.
With a nervous laugh, Deirdre shook her head. “I heard you, I’m just confused.” She held her hands close to her chest.
David reached around to set the bowl on the table before he placed his hand on her knee. His touch was cool, but as far as Deirdre was concerned, the contact was like fire. “You have something to lose.” David’s artificial eyes bore into hers. “If I were you, I would rather die than lose the ability to love.”
Her stomach dropped. The rush came before she could help it.
She ducked her head and tried to cough into her elbow. Her back pressed against the couch cushions, even though she knew she was going to throw up again. But she couldn’t move past David. Her lungs clenched so hard from the force of her cough that the muscles in her sides spasmed. Her eyes welled up. She couldn’t breathe in.
“Here.” In a smooth movement, David stood and carried her. He was already taking her down the hall before she could push against him, but her protests choked on the flowers in her throat.
She left a trail of petals and leaves in their wake.
With his new caretaker capabilities, David decided after several minutes without a verbal response from Deirdre that he needed to act. And so he did, while she lay on the bathroom floor, silently being suffocated by her love for him.
Her eyes blinked into the dying sunlight, and the hot tears ran down her pale cheeks. The medical androids were forced to induce her gag reflex to clear her windpipe. Only then could she be transported to the hospital. Her lungs hurt too much for her to move or speak. The world seemed to spin without her in the moving vehicle.
At least she could breathe. When her eyes were able to focus again, she made out David sitting by her side. The cool pressure she felt was his hand holding hers.
She opened her mouth to say something, but the effort hurt too much. David must have detected her attempt anyway. He offered her a small smile.
Everything was light and dark at the same time. There was pain, a constant and dull pain in her chest that was new, and yet it must have been there forever. She wished it would stop. The only relief she got was from thinking of David.
Thank goodness he thought to act so fast. Her sweet and wonderful David. He was her very own hero, her knight in shining armor, her man of steel. She suddenly wanted to laugh. She could already hear David telling her that while some of his internal components were made of steel, the majority of his makeup consisted of plastic and carbon fiber. A more correct term would be man of various alloys.
Yes. At the end of the day, he was just an android. His actions were not a result of internal emotions. Though, it was nice to imagine that there was some low, persistent feeling in his artificial gut that told him that he cared about her.
Have you ever heard the one about the princess and the machine?
No, she hadn’t either.
The next thing she knew, she was laying in a hospital bed. The faces of her coworkers were peering at her from some impossible distance above her. She blinked. No, they were closer. They were just standing around her cot.
“Oh, geez, she’s finally awake.” Chester looked up between the other two.
Victoria leaned closer. “Well, good morning, sunshine!” She grinned, though the orange light from the window told Deirdre that it was well into the evening. “How are you feeling?”
Deirdre blinked blearily and reached up to rub her eyes. Her entire upper body felt stiff and sore. “Where…” she started to ask, but her throat was raw. Before she could blink, Victoria had moved around to her other side to ease her into a sitting position and place a glass of water in her hand. Deirdre took a tiny sip. Her hands trembled. “Where is David?”
“Oh, your android?” Alfonso nodded further into the room, where David was sitting quietly by himself. “Thing’s been hovering over you for the past three hours. We finally managed to make it leave you alone.”
When her hazy eyes looked for him, David gave her a small wave. She couldn’t return the gesture with the same ease. There were flowers placed on the table beside her. The sight automatically made her want to cough.
With a chuckle, Chester rested his elbows on the plastic railing of her bed, obscuring her view of the flowers. “Oh, don’t worry. We gave him an important job so he wouldn’t short circuit or anything. He’s been trying to contact your family. Is there anyone nearby?”
Deirdre shook her head. Her father had been long buried back home, and her mother was currently on a cruise across the world. Her little brother was going to university up north, but he had too much on his plate for her to call him. There was an aunt that she didn’t speak with very much a few states away. So, there wasn’t really anyone.
“It’s the damn androids, I’m telling you.” Alfonso combed his fingers through his hair and cast a pointed look back to David. “Families are splitting up. No one lives together anymore. Androids are so cheap nowadays that you can just customize any company you want instead of dealing with your own blood relatives,” he muttered.
“Alfonso, not now.” Victoria shook her head, a quiet warning, before she faced Deirdre again with a small smile.
She was silent for a moment. She probably didn’t know what to say. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, she was interrupted by David. “I have informed your mother and brother about what has happened.” David stood from his seat, adjusting his voice to address everyone in the room. “They will not be able to arrive for a few days.”
He moved toward the table by her bed and picked up the small vase of flowers. “Hey, what are you doing?” Chester asked him.
David didn’t blink. “Deirdre does not want flowers in here,” he answered simply, before moving to place them somewhere out of her sight. The others blinked.
Alfonso watched David with a sour look. He spoke to Deirdre without facing her. “Hey, so, why didn’t you tell us you’ve been like this for the past two months? You don’t have to keep secrets, you know.” He scratched his head. “We were worried about you.”
Deirdre tried to take a longer sip of water to stall answering. David must have told them everything. Her hands were shaking, and her figure wavered when she tried to lean forward. The next thing she knew, David had moved to gently grasp the glass and her wrist so she could drink comfortably. She wondered how he could move across the room so fast. Then, she realized Victoria and Chester had already moved and wondered if maybe her senses were just cloudy.
“Deirdre is embarrassed.” David conveniently interpreted her actions for them. She wanted to ask him to stop, but she couldn’t have raised her voice in time. “She tries to handle her problems herself. She doesn’t like to bother anyone else with issues that she perceives to be her own responsibility.”
Alfonso took a deep breath and gave David a hard stare. “Listen, you. I need you to let the woman speak for herself. She doesn’t need an android to speak for her,” he said with a low tone. Chester and Victoria watched the two look at one another. Alfonso, with his surly expression, and David, with his composed look.
David nodded, perfectly unreactive. “Certainly.” He helped Deirdre ease the glass of water down and set it on the table for her before he stood back.
Raising his eyebrows, Alfonso looked to Deirdre. She was on her own. She tried to clear her throat, though the sound was strangled. “It’s just what he said.” Her voice was weak. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
Her coworkers all shared a look. “Well, we were worried. We still are, hon.” Victoria gave her a sad smile and shrugged. “I mean, look at you! You haven’t been yourself for a while now. You could’ve talked to us.”
Chester nodded. “Yeah. I wish we knew you were dealing with all that.”
They all fell quiet. Deirdre wasn’t sure how to respond. No one could have added anything. David looked around, between them all, getting a read on the atmosphere. Analyzing them. If he said anything, Alfonso might be upset again.
Deirdre cleared her throat, and all eyes were on her. “I’m sorry,” she offered a hoarse apology.
They all looked at her immediately as if they were about to speak. She didn’t want their pity or concern. Aware that David was keeping a steady eye on her, she tried to think of a way to change the subject. “Um, Victoria. I was wondering. How did you know it was David?”
Alfonso and Chester both turned to Victoria. She blinked, taken aback by the question. When they discovered Deirdre vomiting flowers in that alley, they had wondered who she was in love with. Victoria answered with such quiet conviction. How could she have known? Deirdre watched her clasp her hands together. “Oh,” she said at first. She fussed with a lock of hair close to her face. Her dark, pretty eyes searched the floor. “It was just the way you talked about him. That’s all. You said he liked tending to your flowers; you wouldn’t have mentioned that little detail if you didn’t care very deeply for him.”
Deirdre wondered what David’s analysis of the sudden rush of color in her cheeks looked like. She had forgotten her absentminded response that morning. The flowers inside of her threatened to rise in her throat again.
With a scoff, Alfonso shook his head. “Yeah, right. Like an android can enjoy anything. Look, the model comes with special little interests that you can choose from and customizable hobbies. If you don’t select any, it probably randomizes them. It’s all just an effort to make them seem more human.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned back against the wall.
“Actually, most androids that have been released so far do not have customizable interests except for a few specific models designed to be companions. They are instead receptive to the environment they are placed in. And the “interests,” as you call them, develop only based on that environment,” David spoke up. “Androids are learning machines. We have learned to engage in activities that provide no significant gain, which you might call hobbies. The time and effort that I devote to Deirdre’s flowers is significant enough that you could say I enjoy doing it. But your definition of “enjoy,” or “hobby,” does not accurately describe my experience with the flowers.”
Alfonso groaned and rolled his eyes. “You must think it sounds very profound, Deirdre, but look. It’s just a program. He’s programmed to say things like that. He’s not capable of original thought. It’s all just embedded in his code.” He had a wry look.
Deirdre blinked. But before she spoke, she glanced at David. He tilted his head with a curious look to Alfonso. “If that is so, then are you not programmed with the thoughts and questions that your god places in your DNA?” he asked.
The cross Alfonso wore bounced on his chest with his abrupt movement forward before he reached to grip it in his hand. He had a deep scowl. “Oh, no, now you’ve crossed a line. Shut that thing down. He’s not supposed to say things like that.” He took two steps away from the bed. His body was angled toward the door.
“Alfonso, you have to relax. Look, you made Deirdre’s heart rate go up.” Victoria reached out to touch his arm, but Alfonso wrenched himself away from her grasp.
He shook his head with an almost vicious light in his eyes. “I can’t stand that thing. I’m going to wait outside.” He pursed his lips. Then, with a huff, he turned on his heel and marched out of the room.
The room was silent. Deirdre practically jumped when the door clicked shut.
Chester and Victoria shared a glance before they turned to face Deirdre. David shifted and placed a hand on her back. The gesture, as meaningless as it might have seemed, was designed to comfort her. Her stomach felt weak. The timing, the pressure he used, it was all measured for David to maximize the comfort he could give her. The rush in her throat and chest was harsh enough to bring tears to her eyes.
Everything about him was preconceived, everything about his design was intentional. He was not subject to the whims of coincidence in the same way humans were. He was not born into a world that gradually shaped him. Instead, he was developed well before he even opened his eyes for the first time. He was born complete.
And she loved him. She loved all the intent behind his design. He was man-made, and he was beautiful.
The flowers rose in her throat. Buds pushed at her lungs; the leaves tried to find their way out of her body, into the light. She could taste them coming on the back of her tongue. The soft catch was all David needed to hear.
He pressed a button beside her bed that would request the doctor. Victoria saw the glazed look in her eyes. “Oh, Deirdre, honey—” she started to say, just as the door opened.
There were voices. Nurse androids and a doctor, maybe. David’s voice came over them to explain the situation. The lights were fuzzy. Deirdre felt the world ease below her.
She wasn’t ready to go. She had once dreamed of having a garden, a little house with an adorable garden that brought silent life to a quaint neighborhood. A garden she could share with David. Her hand reached up. Another sought hers. She recognized David’s cool grasp. She wasn’t ready to go, but she was so very tired of fighting.
His voice was muddled. Everything blended together, a swirl of noise and light and color that lost all meaning to her. Were they speaking to her? She wouldn’t have been able to tell. She wondered what her mother was going to say when she found out what happened.
No. In the end, she wouldn’t get her garden. She would become one. The tears stinging her eyes were no longer only tears, but the sap of the flowers inside. The roots were going to puncture her lungs. The stems would wrap around her ribs and split them apart. The flowers would rise into her skull until her brain bloomed with color and pollen.
They could save her. David leaned over her in an instant of clarity. She couldn’t hear his voice. But she knew, in his expression, what he had asked. The flowers surged, and she winced.
“Let me go,” she gasped, with a wobbly smile. “It’s okay, David. Let me go.”
His eyes focused and then refocused. He was still.
It was a sunny day.
It was always a sunny day; perfect weather for the flowers.
The old man knew this as he gazed upon the colorful house. He had heard rumors about the place for ages. The home was designated as a public space. Just like the park that the children all played at down the road.
But for some reason, the surrounding neighbors seemed to acknowledge that the house wasn’t like any old park that anyone could walk in. No, there were rarely visitors. Last week, he had watched a trio of younger people walk out of the place with the most somber look he had ever seen on their faces. Today, a woman was exiting the gate with a younger man that looked to be her son. Neither of them acknowledged the old man as they passed him on the sidewalk.
And there, watering the bushes, was the sole resident. An android.
The stream of water stopped. The android’s gray eyes fixed on him. “Can I help you?” he asked cordially.
The old man blinked and gave a casual shrug. “Oh, me? No. Just looking. Those are some beautiful flowers.” He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He ended up resting one awkwardly on the fence.
With a quick glance around, the android scanned the flowers that surrounded him. “Yes,” he agreed and continued to water the bushes.
The old man wasn’t satisfied. There had to be some reason the entire county allowed an android to live in a house. Surely, someone living nearby would have seen and complained about it to the local government. Not that he personally had a problem with it. He cleared his throat “This your garden?” he asked.
There was a butterfly bobbing near the bushes, and the android stopped the water again. “No,” he replied without looking at the old man.
For a moment, through the silence, the old man was afraid that was the only answer he was going to get. The android held a hand toward the butterfly.
“The garden does not belong to me. I belong to the garden.” He slowly reached until the butterfly fluttered close to his hand. “The garden loves me. It is my duty to take care of it.”
Letting out a deep breath, the old man had half a mind to wonder if the android was just part of a city project to improve the landscape. The idea wasn’t half bad, he didn’t think. Except, he felt uncomfortable with the way the android proclaimed his status. Property could own androids, but androids couldn’t own property? He didn’t think the android was fully informed. A garden wasn’t any more capable of love than a machine was.
The old man rubbed his forehead. “The house, it owns you, too?”
Shaking his head, the android watched as the butterfly landed on his hand. There were several butterflies, all out of the corner of the old man’s eye. He looked around with awe at the sheer number of flowers being pollinated by insects. “No. Just the garden.” The android slowly looked up and gave a small smile. “This place is not a house. This is a grave.”
Stunned, the man didn’t know what to say to the android walking amongst the flowers and butterflies.
“She continues to live, and she continues to love, you see. There are more flowers every day. She can’t tell me anymore, but she still loves me. I believe she will love me forever.” The android looked up, and the old man felt a jolt from the direct eye contact. “I will take care of her for as long as I am able.”
The old man swallowed hard. “So you, uh. You love the garden. The garden loves you, and you love the garden,” he said. He could see why the neighbors would keep him around. The garden just wanted to grow, and the android just wanted to tend to it. That was love if he had ever seen it.
The android looked at his feet, and then to the sky. “The work that I do to maintain this garden, and the time that I devote to its care,” he began, with that odd little smile of his. “Perhaps you can call that love.”
This story was ranked 1st in the second Broken Mirror contest.