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Contemporary Sad

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

I died again yesterday. Or it felt that way, at least. It always does.

A man caught me in the elevator. He got on at the second floor, when I was busy wheeling Mrs. Denborough out of the way. Something was on the tip of my tongue—Sorry, sir, I thinkbut by the time the doors opened for the third floor, there were three bullets in my head, and no words at all.

I suppose my split-second kindness was to blame. If I had looked up sooner, hadn’t moved her aside, perhaps I’d still be alive. But I’m alive either way, so it wasn’t a matter of kindness at all, really. Perhaps I should’ve just taken the stairs. 

I read quite a bit of Dickinson before I died; Mrs. Denborough had her on every shelf, and I developed a habit. One line, Mrs. Denborough quoted often: It was not Death, for I stood up. I wonder if Emily Dickinson ever pictured me when she wrote that—three bullets straight through the brain, still yet standing. She couldn’t have. But it was nice to think about.

That evening, two officers informed me who was taken into custody: Mrs. Denborough’s old caretaker. I chose not to press charges. One of the officers laughed at this; the other said I was too kind.

I wonder if kindness means anything at all, now, when you can die and stand back up. Would anyone else choose the stairs, if they had another chance? 

Emily Dickinson doesn’t need to wonder, I suppose.

She’s already dead. 

***

When I first crossed paths with Brute, I was also dying—my third or fourth time since creation. His garage was nestled deep into the Automata District, where everything passed you by; at first, the building did. But then I tripped in a trail of blood and saw it: steel, rolling doors, a few inches above ground. 

An entrance.

Back then, as I shimmied underneath the door and into an empty workshop, I chalked it all up to luck. But I knew the lucky ones did not bleed or run or die. They did not dive desperately into piles of arms and legs, rummaging—I did. 

I had just picked up a compatible limb when the rolling doors snapped open. Daylight flooded across the dark garage; my body turned to face it, in equal parts instinct and curiosity. His goggles were opaque, his face blank, and I scrambled back, too weak to stand.

Boots thunked across pools of bloody concrete. I clutched the spare leg, shielding my head from the incoming kick. Nothing came. Slowly, I brought it away from my face. My mouth parted for words.

Suddenly, he kneeled, from six feet down to four, and reached out his hand. Only then did I know: Brute was not just the strangest mechanic in the Automata District—he was the kindest, too.

The blood stains are scrubbed from the concrete now, but most is unchanged. He still wears those goggles, wheels his swivel chair around haphazardly; this time, he rams into an abandoned junk trolley, which jostles before flying out of reach. He stands, careens, and snatches up a spare tool before the trolley fades into darkness.

“You can’t go back,” he states simply, plopping back into his chair, “Denborough’s probably traumatized.”

I feel across my forehead. Only two holes, between both brows. The third missed, perhaps, though I never heard the ricochet of a stray bullet inside the elevator. I settle down on a metal table.

“But it wasn’t real, was it?”

“Y’know how it is with them,” Brute sighs, sneering, and the sound of it cracks unnaturally in his throat, lingers far too long. His voice—like mine—can never seem to escape its drone. “I don’t know why you bother. All they did was shoot you in the head. And the eye.”

I cup my right eye, where the third bullet is still lodged within it. If I had optic nerves, they would surely be dangling from the socket; instead, the damaged eye only protrudes from my face. I prod at it with a finger, and it bulges even further.

“They’re not all bad. Mrs. Denborough lets me read her books.”

He bats my hand away. “And now she never wants to see you again, ‘cause you died on top of her.”

I think of Emily Dickinson and the stairs again. Wobbling on the footrest of the metal table, I rise to my full height.“‘It was not Death, for I stood up.’”

Brute shoves me back down. “Hold still!” he barks, before demanding: “What’s’it?”

“Emily Dickinson,” I mumble as he digs into my socket with a scalpel. Something clinks, and he wordlessly pries open my palm to place it inside. I rub the object—a warped bullet, its body mangled from impact—between my fingertips. “Do you think I should’ve taken the stairs?”

Brute only grunts, plucking more shrapnel from my eye. “Why?”

“I would’ve heard him coming up the stairs.”

“But Denborough’s in a wheelchair.”

“Oh,” I say dumbly, “hadn’t thought of that.”

As Brute’s thin lips flatten, the edges of his mouth crease, the same way Mrs. Denborough’s do when she laughs or cries. With those big, black goggles hiding his vacant stare, he almost looks aged under fluorescent light. Real. But then he sighs again, the creases smooth themselves out, and I remember that I’ve just died again, for the forty-fifth time. 

“Stop dying,” he orders abruptly, “I don’t got enough spare parts.”

I shove his scalpel away from my face, reeling. “You think I planned this?”

“You like dying.”

“I don’t.”

He flicks more shrapnel across the room, sighing. “You do.”

“Stop sighing!” I snap. “It doesn’t sound right.”

Brute slams his scalpel on the table. It clatters to the floor. “‘Cause we ain’t real!”

“Then why do you—”

“I know how you look at me,” he snarls, lips curled and baring two straight rows of teeth, “like you’re expecting me to start bleeding red. Just ‘cause you want to be one of them, don’t mean—don’t mean I—”

Brute stutters, before sighing once more. It’s the worst one yet—not nearly breathy enough to mimic airflow—and he gives up quickly, muttering to himself as he drops to pick up his scalpel. 

I smile at his hunched frame. “Why are you so kind to me?”

If he could blush, his entire body would be red, from the roots of his hair down to the trunk of his neck. “I ain’t kind,” he growls, “it’s just a habit I picked up from you! That’s all!”

“Sorry,” I say, still grinning, “I’ll stop.”

His head perks up. “No more dying?”

“And no more Dickinson.”

“You get a new assignment,” Brute urges, pointing his scalpel at the bullet holes between my brows. Then, he taps the blade to his chest. “I’ll get you new parts.”

I toy with my broken socket, smirking. “An eye for an eye.”

We share a smile as my thumb maps out the busted, outer shell of the bullet. I cradle the very thing that pierced me, feel the gaping holes where parts of me do not exist anymore. I died again; I live again. Both outcomes feel real, so I am. I must be.

I stand up.

***

I reach my destination an hour later than expected, when the road thins out into a small, sleepy town by the ocean; tourist traps and mom-and-pop stops rest along its edge. A glittering ocean stretches down the coast. Anyone could live here, after adjusting to the salty air and the crying seagulls—somewhere quaint and human-carved in a vast sea of space. 

I enter a store on the boardwalk. A bell jingles to mark my entrance, and I duck under the low ceiling, where wind chimes hang. The shop is cramped, fit for souvenirs, passing patrons, and not much else. An old woman gawks at me from behind the counter.

“Do you know where Joy Chen lives?” I ask. Wind chimes collide in a rush of noise as I approach her. 

Something shakes the woman from her stupor, and she nods hastily. “Yes,” she croaks, pausing to clear her throat. “Sorry, we just—we don’t get ones like you around here.”

I freeze. The wind chimes lose momentum, though they still ring behind me. “How did you—”

She points to her eye. I blink. 

“It’s cracked,” the woman says. She makes a slicing motion with one bejeweled hand. “Right down the middle.”

I stare, nonplussed, until she turns, ponytail swishing behind her. She bends down and rustles in a cardboard box. Then, she places something on the counter: an eyepatch. 

“It’s yours,” she declares. 

When I reach forward, my hand brushes past a glass jar bursting with color. I grab the eyepatch. “Thank you.”

She waves a hand, and her bracelets jangle. “Kids play pirate around here,” she says, in lieu of polite exchange, then taps the jar with a long nail. “You like these?”

“Yes,” I admit, slightly embarrassed, “what is it?”

“Sea glass. Interested?”

“No, thank you. The patch is enough.”

The old woman grins, flashing a gold tooth. Her entire face wrinkles. “Joy lives away from town, closer to the beach. Big, stained glass windows on the porch—can’t miss it.”

I pull the eyepatch on, backing into the wind chimes. “Thank you.”

“Take care,” she cautions with a wave. I wonder what she means—my eye, or Joy Chen. I don’t ask. 

***

The beach bungalow looks nothing like most Automata District buildings. It stands stark against everything—the ocean, the rest of the town, even itself. Massive stained glass panels line the front porch windows. Blank canvases are propped up against wooden railings. I walk up to the screen door, stairs creaking under my weight.

I peer inside. “Joy Chen?”

The main door is ajar, and a breeze rattles the screen door. I stick my foot in the small space, kicking it open. “Joy Chen?”

Natural light pours in from every window, but the room is still dim. 

“You’re late,” someone says. I turn toward the voice.

A woman sits in front of a canvas, with a paintbrush in one hand and a gun in the other. I imagine someone else would flinch, pulse racing, stomach swooping. I step closer.

“Are you Joy Chen?”

“Just Joy,” she states, flicking paint from paintbrush to canvas. The gun remains in her right hand. “Are you my new bot?”

“Caretaker,” I correct. “Why are you holding a gun?”

“For reference,” Joy snarks, eyeing me out of her peripheral vision. “Does it matter?”

Black waves of hair pool around her shoulders and down the small of her back. Her fingers are slender—unlike mine, too crooked, too used to ever be put right again—and I watch them carefully. They readjust their grip and curl around the trigger on one hand, lay another stroke across the canvas on the other. They are the hands of a true artist: dangerously beautiful. 

“My job is to keep you alive,” I remind her, slowly. I think of Brute, the creases of his mouth. No more dying.

Joy turns to face me. Her features, too, are beautiful; dark strands of hair frame a soft jaw, curling at the heart of her lips. The glasses on her face are the only crooked things there—circular, cracked in one of the lenses. “You take care of me, my wishes. That doesn’t mean keeping me alive.”

“I can’t lose another assignment.”

“Why?”

“I just can’t.”

Her lips twitch. “You have two holes in your head.”

“And you have a gun,” I counter, stepping closer.

“I want you to cure me,” she decides, suddenly, “that is my wish.”

“Are you sick?”

“Yes,” she says, then points the gun at the canvas, shooting three times.

That is how I meet Joy Chen.

***

She gives me an ultimatum—thirty days, a month—and I think about dying again.

“Why thirty?” I ask one evening, dumbfounded as she paints over the canvas with bullet holes in it. A week passes this way: with silence, painting, and pleas for her to reconsider. Seven times, she denies me. 

“I don’t have time,” she says. “Fix me.”

“What hurts?” 

I peer over her shoulder, at the canvas. She keeps painting over everything—with white, I realize. For a week, she’s been painting nothing but white. 

“Nothing hurts. That’s the problem.”

I feel for the mangled bullet in my pocket, thumbing it repeatedly. Tension oozes from my body for a moment. “I don’t hurt,” I argue uselessly, and what’s unsaid lingers: Am I not real enough for you? Should I hurt?

She looks at me, finally, at the holes in my head and my eyepatch. “You’re not supposed to.”

The answer: Yes. But you can’t.

There is nothing left to say. She paints another layer of white over the canvas, and I let her.

***

I browse her collection of books while she paints. It’s not as extensive as Mrs. Denborough’s, but filled with things I’ve never heard of before—painting techniques, art history, and even stories of people from faraway times. I read something about a sculptor who falls in love with his statue, and the thought sticks with me for days.

“Pygmalion,” I say to her, as she pours globs of white on the canvas, “was he real?”

Joy pauses mid stroke. “It’s all a myth,” she deadpans, “statues can’t come to life.”

Paint drips down her forearm. I think of Galatea, of milky, marble skin; white pigment trickles downward, tearing through flesh to reveal her real statuesque beauty. Like shedding a second skin.

“But it felt real to him,” I protest, tracking the paint as it finally meets elbow, “so his love was real.”

It was not Death, for I stood up, I remember, but Brute’s promise rings louder—no more dying, no more Dickinson—so I stop the thought before it can change shape.

“Sure,” Joy teases, stanching the flow of paint from leaking any further. She smears the rest of it on her smock. “Whatever you say.”

***

Joy doesn’t see the point in leaving her bungalow, but she doesn’t see the point in using lights or having food in the fridge, either—not enough time, never enough time—so her views hold little weight. I drag her into town one week to buy a sandwich.

“This is good,” she tells me in awe, with her face stuffed and crumbs spewing everywhere. 

I hand her a napkin. “You should visit town more often—it’s nice here.”

“Busy,” she swallows, wiping the corner of her mouth.

My pained sigh puts any of Brute’s to shame. “You paint white on a canvas. You can afford to have a sandwich once in a while. And a lamp.”

Joy tips the waiter, shouting: “Busy, busy, busy!”

The conversation ends there.

On our walk back, we stop by the beach. A few people set up umbrellas, while others splash about in the ocean. Joy sways near the shore. I stand farther away.

Her hair blows with the breeze, and those crooked glasses slide down the bridge of her nose. I wonder if she’d want to fix the lenses, if I told her they were broken. Does she even know?

“Do you swim?” she asks me.

I squint at her with my good eye. “Only newer models can.”

“Oh,” she says, sadly. Then, she tugs on my elbow.

I stumble closer. “What are you doing?”

“A little water can’t hurt!” she soothes.

I bend down to remove my shoes when the tide crashes in again. Seawater pools around me. I gasp.

Joy laughs airily. “Nice, right?”

I weave my fingers through sand and crisp water. No more dying, I think, but the tide reels itself in, something brushes up against my wrist, and I forget to think at all. I dig the object out of wet sand, turning it in my palm—a gemstone, blue and translucent, with small bubbles trapped inside. I thumb it like the bullet in my pocket, only to find a smooth, polished surface instead.

“Sea glass,” she says, taking it from my palm, “Glass-side Beach is known for it.”

“The jar,” I realize aloud, thinking of the old woman and her golden grin. “This was in it.”

“The tide wears down littered glass,” she explains, brushing off grains of sand from its surface. “Something man-made becoming part of the natural world. Isn’t it beautiful?” 

Joy hands the piece of sea glass back to me. I put it in my pocket; the glass and the bullet clink together there, colliding. It sounds like a windchime.

***

When I come back from grocery shopping, on the third day of the third week, Joy is sitting at the empty canvas again, gun in hand.

“I can’t,” she says in greeting, and I drop the bags in my arms. Apples roll out onto the floor. 

“Can’t what?” I ask.

Joy only stares into white space. “I just can’t.”

“That’s fine,” I tell her. I don’t have to pry the gun away; she simply drops it into my open, waiting palms, like a gift.

She curls into herself and sobs. “I don’t understand. How do you do it?”

I rest my hand on her shoulder, kneeling. She anchors herself to me, and I yearn for my heart to clench, not for the first time. Instead, I feel nothing. 

“Do what?”

She lets out a shuddering howl. “What you’re supposed to do!”

 I wonder, now, if there is more than one kind of death. If so, it must be this: a blank canvas with nothing to paint. A heart that won’t feel, no matter how desperately it wants to. If so, then maybe I have died, too—a thousand real deaths. Over and over.

The thought washes over me like the tide, smoother than sea glass.

“You don’t,” I whisper to myself, to her. “You choose. That’s how you know you exist. You can choose to.”

I hold my hand out to her; she grips it tight, and we both stand.

June 18, 2022 01:58

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5 comments

Kate Kilbee
17:08 Jul 04, 2022

Truly stunning. This rivals a Stephen King and I love his work. Well done.

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Devora Gray
03:42 Jun 23, 2022

Okay, this story just felt luxurious. The only bit I was missing was a hint of clarity in the beginning. I know it’s supposed to be a robot, but if this weren’t attached to a prompt, I’d struggle with natural confusion over what exactly he is. The girl painting white on white killed me in a good way. I saw an Exhibit when I was in art school of an artist who did nothing but shades of white. It’s haunted me ever since, particularly because I can’t find hint nor hair of the artist.

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Oliver Bisky
20:11 Jun 23, 2022

Thank you so much for your feedback, Devora! I think clarity is the thing I've struggled most with in my entries--deciding what mysteries readers will unravel by reading, and how best to reveal information. Clearly, I still haven't gotten the hang of it yet! I will definitely try to focus more of my attention on that in the future. :) Thank you for your kind words as well! I would've loved to see that art exhibit; it's a shame you can't find anything about the artist or their work, because the concept is nothing short of fascinating.

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Candice Black
09:33 Jun 20, 2022

Amazing story. Good descriptions and rhythm. The first part felt like someone else wrote it - it was sharp; the rest of the story was smooth and rhythmic. You brought out the characters well and I felt the pain and unease.

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Oliver Bisky
22:54 Jun 22, 2022

Thank you so much for reading!

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