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A New Man In Time For Christmas

Dustin Adams' stories have appeared here, at Every Day Fiction, and are forthcoming in ASIM and Dimension6. He's a multiple finalist in L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future contest, and is currently editing 2nd and Starlight, a yearly collection of short stories by finalist-level authors only. 1st and Starlight is available now on Kindle.

I didn't like him.
They said he'd be exactly like my late husband, only better, after my suggested changes, but this lump of Brent-looking plastic-rubber wasn't Brent.
I called the factory. They said their return policy was ten days. I'd had him for twelve. After ten days, they said, free replacements were allowed only if the model became violent. New Brent couldn't hit me, I'd seen to that in his programming.
"We're going to start over, Brent. You and me." I set my empty wine glass down on our wooden coffee table. "Lay here." I indicated the wrapping paper rolls I'd unfurled, side by side. Dutifully, he did as I asked.
His eyes flickered--the way they did when he was processing something new--never focusing on me for long. He rolled, crinkling all the way until paper completely covered his 6'1" frame. Tiny Santas with red cheeks repeated again and again, round and round.
I put him in power save remotely then tucked him under the tree where he lay motionless, cocooned. Christmas was weeks away. I'd probably make it without unwrapping him early.
I'd survived alone all right in the months after Original Brent's suicide. I could do it again for two short weeks.
I awoke before the alarm, just after 6 A.M. like I was a kid who still believed. I padded down the rug-covered stairs. The coffee pot remained dry and our open, hollow living room was dark except for the too-near streetlight beaming through the bay window onto a man-sized present.
I knelt, then began to unwrap my husband.
"Hi Honey," he said after I'd revealed his equable face.
He sat up and I hugged him. The paper that clung, taped to his shoulders and back crunched beneath my arms, reinforcing the artificiality of his being.
No. I shoved those thoughts away. I was starting over and this was My Brent.
I made breakfast while he stood awkwardly in the doorframe between the living room and kitchen. Original Brent would lean against the frame, one foot crossed in front of the other, smirking at me.
New Brent watched in wonder while the eggs cooked. Steam rose above the pan and his eyes flickered.
"They're just eggs, Brent!" I dropped the spatula and bits of egg spattered about, creating dots of soggy, yellow mess.
He approached, extended a gentle hand, and wiped my cheek where some uncooked egg had landed. His soft touch sent me over the edge.
"I can't do this! You're just not him. He would never--"
"But I am," he said. "I have his body, his clothes, and his memories."
"You don't." I backed away and buried my face within my hands. "I changed you. I neutered you."
"No, we are both perfect. Are we not better off after the change?"
"You're not better. Just different." I tried to convince both of us.
"But I am," he said. "Better."
I shook my head. "You're not. I... changed you, and I can't take you back."
He cocked his head. I couldn't tell whether he was processing, or inquiring, or waiting for more. The burden of my secret revealed, I continued. "Brent was unhappy. No, he was miserable. So much so that he drove--" The eggs began to burn. Smoke clouded the room. I spun the dial to off and slid the pan onto an empty burner.
Brent approached, his arms open and welcoming. Sympathetic. Loving. I wanted to slide a long blade from the knife block and stab his ticking, electronic heart.
I turned from him. Christmas had failed.
He halted. "Do you wish me to yell? To spit angry words? I will do anything to make you happy."
"Whatever you do will be disingenuous."
"Not precisely true." He turned and left the room. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, an independent act.
I sat at the table and ignored the burnt eggs. Didn't matter, we never ate anyway.
I looked outside and watched our new car pull down the driveway, pause while Brent no doubt looked both ways, scanning for kids, dogs, neighbors. He's so considerate now.
The day passed. I watched TV, read magazines. Colors cycled across the bay window, orange then pink; purple, then black. Deja vu crept into my being. I waited for the phone to ring. Eventually, it did.
I had to identify his body. Again. Only this time they'd brought him straight to the factory.
Another accident. Another totaled car. I told the insurance company we were really bad drivers. They raised our rates.
"Look as us," I said to his still form, lying on a gurney in a silver-walled room. Bright lights overhead revealed every impacted shard of glass.
Distantly, I wondered whether robotic suicide was covered by warranty. If so, I would program him again. Should I make him angry, or violent... more depressed? Could I purge the guilt from his memory? I want to tell him I'm okay now, but I would be telling a different man.
"It's not your fault." I've said these words before. "We'll get this right, eventually."
"Ma'am?" A young lab tech had entered the room. "Need you to sign a few things." He held forth a clipboard.
I snapped at him. "I haven't yet cried for my husband!" I motioned toward Brent with an open palm.
"But you can't," he said, and studied his papers.
"Because he's a robot?" I yelled.
He shook his head. "No, because the model your husband ordered--"
I stopped listening. Instead, I turned to Dead Brent. "You'd cry for a robot, wouldn't you, Sweetie?"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Author Comments

This story began as a thirteen-line challenge on the Hatrack writers forum. A hastily scrawled idea, really, until I received an e-mail from Ruth Brown asking to read the whole story. But there was no story. So I wrote one.

- Dustin Adams
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