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Dinners Like We Used To Have

Kelly Sandoval lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. She shares her home with her understanding husband, chaos tornado toddler, and increasingly irate cat. Her interactive novel, Runt of the Litter, is available from Choice of Games. Find her on twitter @kellymsandoval or visit her website at kellysandovalfiction.com.

********Editor's Note: Adult language in the story that follows*********
The man who isn't my father arrives about an hour before dinner, as he has every Sunday since the funeral. I stand in the hallway, listening to the familiar sound of his knock. My father's knock. But I know with every hurting part of me that he isn't. It isn't. It's just an expensive toy my father left behind. An AI made in his image. Pretty shitty inheritance, if you ask me. But, of course, Dad didn't. He always did like his surprises.
My son would scold me for these thoughts. Would tell me, as he has told me, that you don't have to be organic to be a person. That the AIs have thoughts and feelings and reason, same as everybody, and that makes them real.
They are programmed to have thoughts and feelings. Surely, that's not the same. It is though. To my son, it is.
He's the one who rushes to open the door, who throws his arms around the man who isn't my father and says, "Grandpa!"
"Micah," says the man, with my father's voice.
The worst of it is, they never did greet each other that way, when Dad was alive. It was always a handshake. Then Micah would mutter something that was almost Hi and sneak off to his room until dinner. Dad never was all that comfortable with anyone under the age of 20. Maybe 30. He tried, but it all came out as questions about school and grades and what did Micah want to do when he grew up. The sort of stuff that shuts any preteen down.
He loved him. I know that. This thing he's left behind, this not a shadow of himself, is proof. If nothing else, it is that. Look how he sets his hand on Micah's shoulder, how he leans in to listen. How he asks the right questions now, smiling when Micah starts talking about his newest game project.
"Nikki!" He holds up a paper bag as they walk past me. "I brought a treat. I thought we might make it together. Like we used to."
Micah is hanging on his arm, grinning, and they stare at me with almost identical hopeful expressions. They both have my father's green eyes. I swallow hard. A month now, since Dad's death, since this thing first showed up, and still I want to scream until it just stops talking. Stops looking at me.
It is a person. He is a person.
A deluded stranger then, who thinks he is my father.
"Why don't you take him up to your room," I say to Micah. His eyes darken.
"Mom, don't act like--"
"C'mon, Buddy. Let's check out this new game," the man says.
"Fine," Micah says, still sullen. But he leads the man away. Soon they are laughing together.
I go to finish dinner, and it's only because my hands are shaking that it happens. The knife slips, bites deep into my knuckles, and blood stains the onions.
"Fuck!" I close my eyes. Sink into the pain. It's almost a relief. Such a simple feeling.
"Nikki!" My father's voice. My father's hands grabbing mine, too cool and too soft but still his hands. I keep my eyes closed while he presses a towel to the cuts, muttering about blood and infection and bandages. Dad was a doctor. And this thing he had made, he gave it his mind. Parts of it, anyway.
My real father had no patience for sickness. And still, it's those moments I remember best. Dad glaring at the thermometer like it'd somehow caused my fever. The way he drove 13 hours to be there when they took out my gallbladder. Insisted on grilling the poor surgeon and the anesthesiologist. His green eyes the first I saw upon waking. Taking care of me.
The man bandages my hand, so gentle, so careful, as my father never was. Taking care of me.
"When Bryce left us," I say, still not looking at him, "That first night, when we came home and everything was gone, it was Dad who came. Micah was six, and Dad kept swearing, calling Bryce a son-of-a-bitch. He didn't even hug me, you know? We didn't do that. But he called the cops, and he woke up his lawyer buddy, and he stood there in the kitchen, and he made us crepes. Called it a 'fucking celebration.' Do you remember?"
"No." The word aches. Hurts him. Hurts me. "There were things I didn't want to remember. I didn't want this part of me, the part I left, to be angry."
"I know," I say.
"I wanted to be someone--"
I shake my head, and he stops.
We all want to be someone. Warmer. Softer. Easier to like. And now he is.
My father was the best man I ever knew, and he is gone.
"I didn't know how to help you," he says. Very soft. "You and Micah. It was so much on you. Your Mom, she would have known, but I didn't. You were trying so hard, to take care of everyone. You can't though. You can't take care of everyone."
"He did," I say.
"He tried. But you couldn't talk to him. And he wanted--I wanted to be someone you would talk to."
I look down at my hand. The pain a constant throb. But the bleeding's stopped. The man hovers, looking lost.
"I hated cooking with him," I say. "He was so damn particular."
"I'm not--"
"Micah hates cooking with me." Because I'm so damn particular. "Why don't you two finish dinner. Make your treat. And I'll-- I'll take a break."
"Relax?" The man says hopefully.
I don't hug the man who isn't my father. I'm not a hugger. But I pat his arm, and I call my son, and I go to my room and cry for the man who never said he loved me.
Who loved me so much he left behind someone who could.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 27th, 2021
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