(Trigger warning: This story contains a brief mention of the death of a family member, due to drunk driving. This story does not condone, nor support, drunk driving.)
“Hello,” the android replies, its voice near-human sounding and clear, “My name is Alfred. How can I be of service?”
I exhale a long sigh as I inspect this android. Alfred, huh? What an old name. What were the android creators at DroidTech thinking? And what was my mother thinking?
Today is my seventeenth birthday, and she decided to surprise me with an android? All I asked for was some money to buy new clothes, not some weird-looking robot with a weird-sounding name. I walk a small circle around Alfred, inspecting his dark brown skin and professional android attire.
Alfred must be the same skin color as mine because Mom changed its skin settings to be that way. DroidTech created this feature many decades ago, in hopes that those who protested against the existence of androids could be a bit more understanding if the androids looked more like them and less like ‘robot slaves’ as they so claimed. This new concept worked pretty well for the most part, since people liked to make their androids appear as human as possible.
Ignoring Alfred’s response, I continue to inspect him from all angles, noticing his freshly ironed gray suit and shiny black loafers. Even his curly black hair is brushed to perfection atop his head, not a hair out of place. When I finally get back to standing right in front of him, Alfred’s eyes lock onto mine, his irises a bright hazel color. He smiles, and I feel tiny goosebumps on my arms.
What am I supposed to do with this thing? I’ve never had an android before, nor have I had any friends who owned one. All my friends are either too broke to afford one or their parents know better than to buy such an expensive thing and let their recklessness destroy it within minutes.
I need to ask my mother what she was thinking, buying me something so useless. I leave my bedroom and go downstairs, looking for her. I find her in the kitchen, stirring a boiling pot of something on the stove. Even though we have a stove that can cook everything for us, Mom still prefers the old-fashioned way of wasting time watching the water boil and cooking things herself.
I lean against the framed kitchen entrance with my arms crossed, watching as she softly sings to herself.
“Don’t say yes, run away now,” Mom croons, swaying her hips from side to side. She continues to sing along to her strange song, oblivious to my presence. After a couple more minutes of this, I walk inside the kitchen and open the fridge. She jumps a little, her eyes widening as she quickly turns around.
She visibly relaxes when she realizes it’s me, and she places the spoon she was stirring with on the counter as she shuffles her slippered feet towards me. With her arms outstretched, she hugs me tightly as if I just came back from a long trip, even though it’s only been a few hours since she last saw me.
“Happy birthday, Mazarine!” Mom exclaims, still holding on to me. I reluctantly let her hug me for a few seconds, then I shake my arms around so that she knows to let go. She quickly releases me and goes to lean against the counter next to me, watching me as I rummage through the fridge for some fruit.
“So,” Mom begins, playing with the rings on her fingers, “what do you think of your birthday gift?”
“I told you what I wanted for my birthday months ago,” I grumble, “but you completely ignored that and got me some crappy android.”
Looking crestfallen, Mom lets her hands drop to her sides, the huge grin on her face now a frown. “You, you don’t like it?”
“It’s not that I hate it, it’s just that…” I purposely let my sentence hang unanswered, allowing her some time to really think about what a lousy gift she gave me.
Mom looks around the kitchen, probably deep in thought about how to fix this. A pretty good idea must’ve just popped into her head, because she suddenly snaps her head to face me, a determined glare in her eyes.
“Would you like to go to the mall today?” Mom asks, returning to her boiling pot to keep watch. “You can take my car, but Alfred should go with you.”
Appalled, I shut the fridge door and face her once more, my mouth slightly ajar. “And why would I do that? Why should I trust this thing?”
“Because Alfred has tons of important coding that makes sure he protects you no matter what. You know why it’s just been you and me for two years now. If I lost you, too, I don’t think I could take it.” Mom continues to stir round and round the pot, her face slowly mixing into a slurry of sadness and grief.
I know exactly what she means by this. Dad died two years ago because he was too reckless. He went out bar-hopping with some friends super late one night, and none of his friends were sober enough to drive him home. So, he ended up trying to drive himself home plastered, but of course that’s not possible. He accidentally swerved right into the opposite lane of oncoming traffic, and the rest. . . I don’t want to revisit right now. Especially not on my seventeenth birthday.
I pull myself out of my painful memories and stare at Mom. I know I’m heading down the same path as Dad. I also have reckless friends, I also go clubbing nearly every weekend. I try not to return home drunk enough for Mom to notice, but I’m not sure I’ve been doing the best job at that.
“Fine,” I respond after several long, silent seconds, “Alfred can come with me to the mall.”
“You know where my car keys are,” Mom says, her eyes locked on the pot, “Just don’t come back home too late, okay?”
I tell her I’ll do my best as I race upstairs to change out of my pajamas. When I burst into my bedroom, Alfred’s still standing exactly where I left him in the middle of my room, and my soul leaves my body for a second. Taking several quick breaths, I glance at him again, now slightly angry he startled me so easily.
“Get out,” I command, my hands on my hips, “I need to get changed, and I don’t want you watching me like some creepy pervert.”
“As you wish, Mazarine,” Alfred speaks, exiting my room with more speed than I initially thought he’d have. After he leaves, I quickly throw on a wrinkled purple hoodie and a pair of paint-splotched jeans before pocketing my phone and heading back downstairs.
Alfred is waiting for me a few steps away from my bedroom door, facing the wall. I chuckle a little behind my hand, then stroll over to him and tap his shoulder. He turns around to face me. I keep walking past him and down the stairs, turning my head slightly to my left to talk to him.
“We’re going to the mall, Alfred,” I tell him matter-of-factly, “so don’t do anything weird while we’re out, alright?”
“Don’t worry, Mazarine,” he replies, following me, “I won’t do anything ‘weird’. I shall act normal.”
I roll my eyes as I grab Mom’s keys off its little hook next to the front door, put on my black sneakers, yell out “Bye, Mom!”, and head outside, Alfred not too far behind. I jump into the driver seat, Alfred placing himself in the passenger seat, and I feel a quick burst of adrenaline flow through me like a hot flash.
I’ve driven Mom’s car before, but only with her in the passenger seat nagging me the whole time, and that was several months ago. So I now feel more excited to finally be free to drive by myself. Relatively speaking of course, since Alfred is sitting next to me, staring straight ahead with a dopey grin on his face.
With the push of a button, the car quietly hums, signaling it’s starting up. I fix my rearview mirrors and adjust my seat as I wait for the all-clear sign from the car dashboard. A few seconds later, the car flashes the sign, and I reverse my way off the driveway into the street. Houses go by, slowly at first, as I get used to driving again. Once I figure out where the auto-drive mode is, I press it quickly.
The car starts driving itself, maintaining a very slow pace as we make our way out of the neighborhood of simple, boring houses. When we finally reach the highway, I look around in awe at all the cars and other vehicles passing us by. None of these cars are on the street. They’re all soaring high above the buildings and houses, like mini airplanes.
A car with tons of rainbows drawn in what looks like permanent marker. A large semi truck with cylindrical wheels. Two bicycles connected together by multicolored strings. There are so many cool, unique cars, bikes, trucks, and vehicles I’d never seen before, so I continue to ogle out the window, my hands pressed against the window like I’m a kid again.
I want to take a selfie. Me and all these super cool cars in the background. I dig into my left pocket, then my right. No phone. I start looking around the car’s interior, getting more worried by the second.
Noticing this, Alfred turns towards me and cocks his head to the right, curious about what I’m doing. I ignore him as I keep digging around for my phone. I know I had it with me earlier. Where did I put it down?
After a few panicked moments of searching, I finally see my phone facedown on the ground behind my feet. I stretch my arm down to grab it, but I can’t seem to reach it. I lean myself around the steering wheel to snatch up my phone. As I’m doing this, a female voice announces, “Auto-drive mode has been turned off. Please keep both hands on the wheel and stay alert.”
I sit up quickly, too started to say anything at first. Then, once my body catches up with what’s racing through my head, I grab ahold of the steering wheel out of pure instinct and without any serious thought.
The car rapidly starts to head straight towards the opposite lane, and Alfred looks around erratically, kinda like a dog whose owner is having a panic attack and it doesn’t know what’s going on at all.
“Mazarine, what is going on?” Alfred asks way too politely, “We are not heading in the direction of the mall. We are driving in the opposite driving lane, and this may endanger—”
Before he can finish his sentence, a random car crashes into the side of Mom’s car, causing us to start nosediving towards the street about a hundred feet down. The car’s dashboard starts flashing what looks like a million different error and warning signals, but I feel way too terrified and disoriented to make sense of any of them. I just grip the steering wheel with all my strength and try to pull the car upwards, back into the safe driving airspace above.
As Alfred and I are hurtling towards the ground below, I hear him quickly unbuckle his seatbelt, followed by some fabric shuffling sounds. Before I can turn to ask what he’s doing, he quite literally throws himself onto me, blocking me from seeing anything else but his upper torso. I’m too shocked for words. Why would an android do something like this to his new owner?
Before I can figure out why, the car smashes down into the concrete. The world goes dark in a second, and I hear nothing but a high-pitched ringing sound in both my ears as I quickly lose consciousness.
I feel so light, so full of air. Just floating in this pool of water. I don’t feel anything. With my eyes closed, I try to relax deeper into this water, but I keep hearing someone crying from somewhere very far away. I strain my ears to hear them better.
The murky water around me slowly drains away, and I start shivering instinctually. The crying seems to get louder and louder, until it suddenly feels like it’ll burst my eardrums from how loud it is. I cover my ears firmly with my hands, but the sound seems to intensify with every passing second.
Not wanting to hear this any longer, I wrench my eyes open and find myself in a spotless hospital room. I’m laying down in surprisingly comfortable hospital bed, my body covered by a thin blue blanket. My left hand is trapped in a thick gauzy cast, and I can feel the same on both my calves. To my right, I notice my mom not bothering to cry quietly as she sits in a small chair, her eyes completed covered as she clutches a bunch of tissues up to her face.
I try to sit up, but my entire body aches so badly I exhale a loud grunt and fall back down instead. Hearing this, Mom’s head shoots up and faces me. Her face is a mix between total despair and guilt, but she tries to put on a brave face as she drops the tissues on the chair and gets up. She quietly shuffles over to the bed, her hesitation to touch me showing in her quivering hands and arms.
My eyes suddenly full of tears, I spread my arms out wide, and Mom falls into my embrace on the stiff hospital bed. We both cry as if we had been holding in our tears for our whole lives.
I keep crying because I desperately want to thank Alfred for saving my life, but I now have no idea whether Alfred is still functioning or if he’s been turned into a pile of broken metal parts by now.
Mom keeps sobbing because she almost lost her only daughter and the last living family member she has. The thought of this makes my eyes burn harder as more tears slide down my face, and I hug Mom even tighter.
I make a mental promise to change. To stop making Mom worry about me so much and so often. To not go clubbing every weekend. To be a better person not just for Mom, but for myself.
A tall guy limps towards me from the hallway outside my room. He must’ve been the driver of the car I crashed into, because he has a large bandage on one side of his face, and he’s wearing a very wrinkled sweater and ripped jeans. In his right hand is a small metal cube. He quietly places it on the table next to my bed and limps away, not saying a word.
Confused, I release Mom from my arms, wipe some tears from my watery eyes, and pick up the cube to inspect it more closely.
It feels very warm in my slightly cold hands, and it has two thin slats along two sides. I notice a tiny silver button, almost invisible at first. My heart does a tiny leap. Pressing the button down with my thumb, a tinny voice speaks from the slats.
“Hello, my name is Alfred. How can I be of servi—”, Alfred’s voice speaks, just before the cube loses its power and turns ice-cold, dead to the world completely.
I gently clutch the cold cube of metal to my chest and sob some more. After a few quiet minutes, I finally swipe some tissues over my eyes and face to dry my tears and pull myself together. I need to be strong. For Mom.