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Tender Warmth

By BAlexander All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Scifi

Chapter 1

Its light brown hair cascading over the cushions was what first caught my eye. I crinkled my nose in disgust as I glared into the living room from the hallway. My husband had spread it across the couch while it charged: a cord ran from its back across the floor like a slick, black snake. More wires fed into its torso connecting it to Michael’s tablet. I could see his deep brown eyes darting back and forth as he glanced over the programming choices listed. Watching him mull over the vast selection of programs made a small but angry fire grow in my stomach. His finger flicked across the tablet surface as he studied his options; all designed to instill that tin can lounging on my couch with a vague mirage of a personality.

My eyes flickered back to the robot. Its skin was pale but its cheeks were as pink as any human being’s; must be a new painting technique. While Michael tinkered away obliviously, the fire raged. I could feel the hot licks working their way up my body. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to rip the cord from the wall, denying it power and keeping it dormant forever.

Michael hadn’t even activated it yet and I hated it just as much as the others. I didn’t want to hear its purring synthesized voice or see its delicately manufactured smile beaming at me. I pictured snatching it and throwing it off our balcony. The fire burned contently as images of shattered metal and plastic scattered across the sidewalk filled my mind. But I didn’t move. I stood there instead, glaring at the immaculate curls framing its perfectly manufactured face.

Finally, Michael awoke from his technologically induced haze long enough to notice my presence. Kicking cardboard and paper manuals aside, he made his way over to me. A big goofy smile slapped itself onto his face.

“She’s great, don’t you think?” he asked, nudging me softly.

“Why did you buy one? We don’t need it. They’re a waste of money, Michael.” I defensively stepped back further into the hallway, waiting for him to snap back at me, defending his precious hunk of metal and wire.

But I was met only with eyes emoting disheartenment. “I thought you’d like her. She could help you around the house. Maybe keep you company?” Sheepishly, he peered down at his feet, his voice barely a whisper as he spoke. “I was hoping to make you happy.”

Standing in the shadows of the hallway, I remained motionless. Happy? How could he think a robot would make me happy? Did he not remember what the last one stole from me?

I was twenty-six years old when Noah was born. He was so small –his body bruised and lanky- but even then I could tell he looked like Michael. With the soft brown tufts of hair he already had at birth, he looked just like his father did first thing in the morning: hair in every possible direction. It would stick up even if I brushed it so I dedicated much of my efforts to slicking it down. Michael found it amusing to spike Noah’s hair up at every possible angle, especially after I had just tamed it, much to my annoyance.

As soon as he could support his own head, Noah would stare at things for the longest time, watching as if he were intently studying the object of his attentions. Later, he would roll around the floor instead of crawling, adding to his long list of odd behaviour. I would pick him up and set him back on the floor upright, hoping he would get the idea. Noah, instead, would look at me and as if in deliberate defiance, drop back onto his stomach, and resume rolling as he explored the room. I gave up. I’d let him express himself even if it meant the other mothers would stare at me disapprovingly as my child proceeded to roll from place to place.  

He took to kindergarten like a fish to water. He was quiet but watched and listened intently; soaking everything in like a sponge. It would amaze me how much detail he would take in. He could flip through a picture book, struggling to pronounce scientific names of the world’s deadliest animals and would later recall them as we watched children’s movies together. He would point to the screen, protesting the movie’s lack of realism. Typically, Michael and I would throw popcorn at him, shushing him. He’d simply respond by happily eating the popcorn off the floor. 

I was a good person so I don’t understand why it happened.  Noah was about to enter first grade when he started to cough. I thought it was a little odd for him to catch a cold in the middle of summer but shrugged it off. Kids were magnets for germs, right?

We took him to the doctor when it became obvious the over-the-counter children’s cough syrups weren’t working but it didn’t help. Noah didn’t get better. His small frame would shake every time a cough wracked his body.

We took him to emergency when he started to look blue. At the hospital, the nurses grabbed Noah, herding him away from the other patients. Michael and I yelled after him as nurses began filing us into a separate room. One nurse- Nurse Phillips- explained they suspected Noah might be ill with a simple cold. But both Michael and I scoffed, seeing past the futile efforts to calm us. A small cough did not land a child in emergency. But she changed course. Talks of microorganisms and antibiotic resistance were tossed out, and that’s when I began to panic.

I had heard on the news of the rising numbers of “superbug” illnesses. People were dying because they became ill with bacteria that could resist modern medicine. A co-worker in Michael’s office had died seven months earlier- the twentieth case in our city- and now my son might be added to that grim statistic. I clutched my chest in pain. That was the first time my heart had skipped a beat.

Noah didn’t respond to the antibiotics. Every day, Michael and I would slip on masks and scrubs to see our ailing child. I noticed his plump cheeks began to sink and hollow out and his laughter was replaced more and more by chest-wracking coughs and a rising body temperature. But Michael and I made a point of keeping things normal. We’d wade through the growing sea of sick children and worried parents crammed into the Children’s Ward trying to find our sick child. We would play, read, and cuddle with Noah as if nothing was wrong. We’d ignore his decaying health as much as possible; lying to ourselves that he looked a bit better than yesterday. Soon the nurses began to limit our time with Noah in fear we’d fall ill as well.

These “superbugs” were the reason the robots were created. Doctors and nurses began to die. They desperately treated their patients, hoping to save their lives but ultimately would fall victim to the same sickness they were trying to eliminate. Fearing for the health of hospital staffs across the country, the robotic nurses were introduced. They were sleek machines that rolled into the rooms on treads, resembling small tanks: taking temperatures, delivering food, and dispensing medicine in hopes the patients, as if by magic, would suddenly respond to treatment.

But they were hard, soulless, pieces of metal. Noah would cry when they came trudging towards his bed. He told me of the fear he felt when the loud rubber treads squeaked as they travelled across the shiny waxed surface of the corridor floor. I guess most of the other child patients felt this way too. It wasn’t uncommon to hear screams of terror coming from the Children’s Ward. Some would try to run away when their lungs would give out and they would collapse, near dead on the floor. An upgrade to the robotic nurses was inevitable.

Soon after, Noah began to tell me about “Ginger”. He told me its smile made him feel better; made him feel a little less scared. It looked human enough to him so he thought it deserved a real name. Instead of NU (Nursing Unit) S-54, he decided to call the machine Ginger because of its bright red hair. Because it was easy to sanitize, the robot could hug Noah. He said Ginger’s hugs felt good because its outer shell felt cold on his feverish skin. He shyly added, peering up at me, that it felt nice to have hugs again. It reminded him of the life he had before he was sick.

My heart broke a bit more. A hollow piece of machinery was giving Noah- my child- something he loved, something he craved desperately… something he couldn’t get from me and Michael: his parents. A machine in human skin could provide comfort to my dying son that by all rights was my responsibility, but I couldn’t even touch him. I could feel the jealousy boiling viciously inside me.

Noah lasted eighteen months in the hospital. They prolonged his life but in the end they couldn’t save it. I could have made peace with this fact if he had died in my arms but the last face he ever saw was not mine or his father’s, but one manufactured in a factory. As soon as we got the call, Michael and I sped through traffic, leaving work without a word, praying we would make it in time. We rushed through the spotless corridors and raced up the stairs. When we arrived at the Children’s Ward, we found Nurse Phillips and Ginger standing at the desk. The look in the nurse’s eyes told me all I needed to know: she had been waiting to tell us the bad news. As I heard the words slip from her mouth, I could feel my nerves crumbling and my knees began to grow weak.

Michael was holding me up when I heard it.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The voice was computerized but smooth as silk. I looked up at its perfectly designed face. It was soft and rounded in appearance. Its smile emulated warmth as if it actually had feelings. Its perfectly pinked lips separated as more programmed words slipped out. “He went peacefully.”

I felt my heart snap.

I threw myself at it; a loud, metallic clunk echoed as it and I hit the ground. I could feel the unyielding metal frame under its artificial skin, infuriating me to think that this cold, soulless object was the last thing he touched and saw before he died. I began crawling at it, ripping the synthetic hairs implanted in its scalp out of its head. I could feel the nurse and Michael pulling at me but I was like a crazed animal. My very being cried for its destruction. I began to beat it with my purse as I screamed through the tears. I hit it over and over in the face, making small dents but doing much more damage to my own hands. Over and over, I brought down my purse, desperately trying to crush its face in, scraping my knuckles. I saw my blood smeared over its dented face. It felt good as I pretended it was the robot’s own blood.

Finally, Michael dragged me off. Sitting on the floor with me, he wrapped his arms tightly around my waist as I clawed at him, trying to break free to continue my assault. I could hear him yelling in my ear to calm down, to breathe, but he couldn’t understand that all I wanted was to see that robot in pieces across the floor. Another nurse ran from behind the desk and grabbed the nursing unit with Nurse Phillips, who was sporting a bloody nose, pulling it out of sight and away from my murderous rampage.

I took pleasure in seeing the red pieces of fibre scattered across the white, sterile floor.

While I had destroyed that metal abomination, a new robot had infiltrated my home- my sanctuary. Michael had pulled me in from the shadows and excitedly began to explain the robot’s features while he shoved his tablet in my face. I blocked out his voice and simply glared down at it, wishing desperately for it to burst into flames.

My stare of hatred was all-consuming, to the point that I had not even noticed Michael begin to unplug the wires from its body. It was only when he attached the panel covering its internals and began buttoning up its shirt that his presence registered in my mind.

“Ready?” Michael asked nervously, awaiting my consent.

I continued to stare at the robot blankly.

All of a sudden, I heard whirling. Everything began to speed up as my body began to panic, my head swirling as the room began to spin. I clutched desperately at Michael, fearing I might fall when I saw its eyes- its big, sapphire blue eyes. I gasped in horror.

Its face was human. It looked like a little girl was standing in my living room, gazing kindly at me. A sweet smile spread across its delicate rose lips, exposing life like teeth. Slowly, it extended its hand out to me as it opened its mouth.

“Ma’am, may I help you? You look unwell.”

  Its voice overwhelmed my senses as emotion and sensation bled from my body. By all appearances, this robot looked and sounded like a little girl- a little human girl. Fat tears began to well and roll down my cheeks as my eyes remained fixed upon its face in awe. Michael held me close to his chest, begging me to talk to him as he ran his palm over my hair but my tongue had forgotten how to form words. My heart, for the last time, shattered.

There was no hope. I could only theorize what it would be that this robot would take from me but I feared it would be significant. A small voice in the back of my mind warned me that it would take what little I had left and jealously held dear to my heart. I looked up at Michael and prayed.
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