Arrow-right Camera

Now in its fifth year, Summer Stories is our annual short fiction series. This year’s theme: The Road Trip. We’ll feature stories from some of the region’s best writers about road trips that are memorable, strange and sometimes a bit of both. Visit Summer Stories to read this year’s entries and revisit previous editions. Buckle up!

A&E >  Books

Summer Stories: ‘Lakes’

Life was different for robots back in the 1980s. I was a baby, and Dad was a brand new father. Our relationship was strained from the start. Dad seemed paranoid having a state-of-the-art infant son crawling around the house; I was just further proof he was becoming obsolete. I can’t blame him for thinking this way. Back then even well-functioning robots who passed perfectly as human could be snatched in the middle of the night by the robotics companies who had created them. No warning. No explanation. “Robotic rights” had yet to enter the American lexicon. We were property. We were part of grand a social experiment to determine if autonomous artificial life could be created. Well, yes, but then what? This existential uncertainty haunted Dad. I often try to imagine the look on his face when I first arrived at the apartment, packed into that cardboard box along with a set of instructions. Dad must have thought it was some kind of sadistic punishment. He let Mom do all the parenting. In fact, the first time Dad spoke to me was on my first birthday when, like all baby robots, my vocal speakers finally switched on. I opened my mouth and recited the business address of the company that had created us: “Gravy Robotics, 1717 Starline Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48207.”

Dad’s response: “Hell no.”

It hadn’t been my choice to say that; my latent programming was merely offering a suggestion, in case I needed repairs. Dad probably knew this too, but by then he was consumed with mistrust for Gravy Robotics and myself. He launched into a diatribe, familiar to Mom and me, about how he’d never get within 10 miles of Gravy, how they’d snatch you up, break you apart, and have all kinds of tests run on you. Gravy would steal all your memories, and the scientists would watch them on a huge TV screen and laugh at you.

Mom just stared out the window of our apartment. “Taking a drive somewhere sounds nice.”

“Damn it,” said Dad. “Let’s drive then.” He started running through the apartment, throwing extra clothes and onesies into his suitcase. We packed into his van, and Dad drove onto the freeway, aiming west until he ran us into Lake Michigan. This was our first and only family vacation. It was midnight, and the beach was empty. Mom set me down in the sand for five seconds, then nervously scooped me up again. She carried me around the beach after that, shivering at the sound of the tiny crashing waves. She asked Dad, “Are there crabs here?”

“Hell,” he said.

“I think I’ve got sand in my ankles,” said Mom. “I don’t know.”

“Let me guess. You want to get back in the van.”

“Yes.”

“You know where it is.”

Dad walked straight into the water. Mom was carrying me back to the van, but I peeked over her shoulder: a wave rolled over Dad’s head, and he was gone. In the van, Mom tossed my child-safety seat away and cuddled me on the back bench, a novel experience that made me squeal with delight. It was so rare for me to have Mom all to myself. She flicked on the overhead light and became a surgeon, picking grains of sand from my feet, my bellybutton, my eyelids, every fold of my skin. She tossed each evil grain out the open window.

“Are we going home now?” I asked.

“I’m not programmed to drive, sweetie.”

Seagulls called from the darkness. Apparently, we were staying in the van, right there on the parking lot. Several hours later the sky yellowed. Mom held me to the window to see the black lake water and the hills of sand across the beach. Cars came and went all day, their occupants giving our van a curious look before they became enraptured by Lake Michigan. At evening, a bonfire appeared far down the beach, along with sudden bursts of laughter. Then it went out.

Mom had me buckled into my safety seat, her own seatbelt buckled too, by the time Dad emerged from the surf. He drove us back home, the water slowly draining out of him, puddling on the van’s metal floor. Mom sat with a look on her face, as though she still had sand strung through her insides, but Dad’s body was loose and tranquil. From my baby seat, I asked, “What was down there, Dad?”

“I won’t spoil it for you.”

Gravy nabbed him a year later. Mom lasted until the spring of my seventh grade school year – when she walked to the hardware store for a can of grease and never came back. She and I weren’t talking much by then. She was completely obsolete; we both knew it. I’ll admit to a tinge of euphoria once the apartment was finally all mine.

But now my own daughter, Morgan, is about to turn 1, and I can imagine the inevitable question about her grandparents: “Do you miss them?”

I don’t know what I’ll say. The logical part of my processor will want to explain that it was a different time back then. Robots didn’t get so attached to their parents, like they do now. Your parents disappearing was just part of growing up, a rite of passage, not necessarily a bad thing. Or I could tell her, truthfully, that I’d go crazy if I ever lost her or her mom, that I love my family more than I know how to express with language. But Morgan’s got one of those high-tech processors that just came out last year. She’ll know I’m skirting her question. So I’ll probably just lie to her and say, “I miss my parents a ton, sweetie.”

I try to imagine Dad getting along in today’s world where it’s not unthinkable that someone will walk up to you and ask point-blank, “Are you a robot?”

That’s an easy question for Morgan’s generation: “Yep. Are you?”

But I’d probably answer more like Dad would: “Mind your own business.” I’m still most comfortable with people assuming I’m human. I told a few co-workers I’m a robot, but that’s it. Carol. Jonathan. Wesley. But not my boss, though I’m sure she’d be OK with it. I’ve worked there eight years, so she knows I’m a good worker. Actually, she’d probably be offended I waited this long to tell her.

Not that anti-robot sentiment has fully disappeared. Some robots still lose their jobs or are denied a library cards just because they check the “R” box. Some of us, despite the new laws, occasionally vanish for reasons unknown, resulting in long court battles with robotics companies. But that’s rare. I don’t hear from Gravy aside from the Christmas card they send every December for me to recycle. My wife and I were made by two different companies, which is how most robots of our generation do it, and we ordered Morgan from a third company, robot-owned and operated, with great online reviews. Additionally, we ordered “tracking chips” in the mail (just insert it into your bellybutton and forget about it) that will allow each of us to know the exact locations of the other two, should the unthinkable happen. The chips cause a green glow, brightening up the skin around our bellybuttons, though easily covered by a shirt. Dad would have hated that glow and very concept of being tracked. But I’ve come to regard it as a family trait. I kiss Morgan on her green belly every night before bed.

It’s March, and she and I are on a road trip. We live in Spokane, Washington, and we’re driving into Idaho: Lake Pend Oreille, which is 150 times smaller than Lake Michigan, yet somehow deeper, at 1,152 feet. Morgan is strapped into the child carrier in my back seat, and her processor might already be stocked with these figures. I’ll know next week, on her first birthday, when her speaker switches on and she can tell me. Maybe that’s why we’re taking this trip, so she’ll know there’s more to the world than the data your company gives you. Or maybe I’m just like Dad, worried my baby’s got all the answers while I don’t.

There’s a public beach in the town of Sandpoint, but the place is too busy. Humans – or what look like humans – are everywhere, in their winter coats, casting fishing lines into the water. I don’t need them judging us, so I keep heading north, out of town, and curl us around the top of Lake Pend Oreille. I get a funny itch to veer toward Canada, to find a patch of water unspoiled by human eyes, but fantasies like that are just a stall. I’m nervous. Edgy. I glance in the mirror and see Dad’s obsolete eyes staring back at me, so I pull immediately to the shoulder of the road. The lake is barely discernible through a row of trees. This is the spot. I gather my daughter from the back seat, hold her tight in my arms, high-step through the weeds and trees, and I’m standing on the shoreline. Mountains loom across the lake, watching, but we’re hidden from human view. I was expecting sand, but I find millions of tiny rocks instead. I kick my shoes off, and the reality of their sharpness thrills me. The water is black and smooth.

“I did a little research, Mo,” I whisper, “and some people believe a monster lives down there. The Pend Oreille Paddler. What do you think?”

I take my initial step. I go in up to my knee. The water’s freezing, but I feel stronger for it. With another step, my bellybutton is glowing beneath the surface. I realize I’m holding my daughter up near my head, as if to protect her from the water. That’s not why we’re here, so I submerge her legs. Her eyes go wide, and her mouth reaches toward mine, chewing, like a human who’s tasted something that can’t be processed. Or she’s trying to tell me something –

“Keep your eyes open,” I say.

And we’re in.