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art by Wi Waffles

Super-Parents Last All Childhood Long

Erica L. Satifka's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Ideomancer, and PodCastle, among others. She lives in Baltimore, Md., with her husband Rob and their three cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.

***Ed Note: Adult Language***
"They weren't really robots," Shora said. "Just the brain. I think everything else was grown in a vat."
"A vat?"
"You know, like a big container? Maybe it's not a vat. I don't know how they made them." Shora bit her lip. "So, anyway, that's why you can't meet my family."
"I understand if you don't want me to meet them." Caleb put his arm around Shora and gave her a squeeze. He was ten years older than her, with no job and no college degree. He knew exactly why Shora didn't want him to meet her parents. But he couldn't stand lying, especially when the lie was so dumb.
I'm breaking up with her, he thought, as the bus pulled into the stop. He fed three dollars into the cash box and followed Shora to the back.
Shora took a half-completed sock from her bag and started to knit. To Caleb, the mess of needles looked like a balding porcupine. He removed a folded-up newspaper from his jacket pocket and had just opened it when she began to speak. "You don't believe me."
"About the robot parents? No, I don't, Shora."
"My real parents died. In a car crash. It's more common than you'd think."
He opened the paper to the want-ad section, again. "Let's not get into this right now. We have a movie to catch." Caleb didn't know if he even wanted to see the movie anymore. Shora had always been a little distant, a little weird. She never cried, not even when they'd seen that dog get turned into a Pollock piece by an SUV a few weeks ago. But Shora wasn't crazy.
The bus stopped at North Avenue and a homeless man got on, followed by a little girl. The bus belched black smoke as it continued up Charles. Caleb circled ads for a few minutes. He could almost consider forgiving Shora for lying to him.
"They work in a hotel now."
"Who, your parents? Your parents the robots?"
"They were reprogrammed when I turned eighteen. They live in Florida."
"Shora, honey, lots of people's parents move away when their kids graduate high school. It doesn't mean they're robots. We could visit them right now if you wanted to." If we had money, he mentally appended.
"They wouldn't remember me." She sighed and looked out the window. A billboard pasted to the side of an apartment complex announced new leases opening next month, reduced cost for students.
"Hmm," Caleb murmured. He turned the page.
As the theater crowd dispersed, Shora grabbed Caleb's hand. He didn't flinch, even though he still planned to break up with her that night. But when they got back to her dorm room and she took off her shirt, he couldn't do it.
Caleb gingerly pulled himself out from the tangle of Shora's limbs. On tiptoes, he investigated her room. It was bland. Most girls he'd dated liked to hang pictures of family and friends on their walls, and festooned their beds with stuffed animals or mementoes. Even the ones closer to his age did that. Shora's walls were a blank expanse of institutional gray, and her bedspread was a scratchy beige throw. Caleb had liked Shora's practicality. He didn't hang up pictures of his parents and friends either, after all.
He went into the bathroom and flicked the switch. Guiltily, he pushed aside the packet of birth-control pills and nasal spray, looking for medication of a different sort.
Nothing, he thought, with a paradoxical sense of disappointment. He didn't want Shora to be sick. But he also didn't want her to be a liar.
"Honey?" Shora said. Caleb snapped off the light. "Come back to bed."
"I'm going for a walk. Can't sleep." Before she could say anything else, Caleb slipped into his clothes, and strode out into the mild April night.
Caleb walked to a Safeway a few blocks away. In the frozen food aisle he reached for a Fudgesicle. On his way to the checkout line, he bumped into a stocker.
The middle-aged man in the corporate vest looked sideways at him, not making eye contact. He reminded Caleb of Shora.
"I said, I'm sorry."
The man continued down the aisle.
"Whatever." Caleb placed the Fudgesicle and a five-dollar bill on the conveyor belt, along with a newspaper. Have to look at the want ads again, he thought, as the automatic checker ran his purchases through.
When he got back to the dorm, it was light. He threw the wet stick that was the Fudgesicle onto the lawn and pressed the buzzer for Shora's room.
This time I'm really going to do it, he thought. I'm really going to break up with her. It hadn't been such a bad relationship, but even if it wasn't for the lying, it still wouldn't have worked out. She was too distant, too unemotional. And Caleb had to admit that not letting him meet her parents stung. Yeah, he was a jobless loser. So are a lot of people these days, he thought, getting angrier.
The door opened, and Shora stood before him, in her usual dull sweats. "We need to talk."
"I was going to say that," Caleb said.
"You went through my stuff."
"No I didn't."
"Yes, you did." She heaved a sigh and ran her fingers through her hair. "I don't think we should date anymore."
"Okay," he said, relieved. "Is it because you think I looked through your stuff?"
"You didn't believe me about my parents. How can I trust you?"
"I guess you can't." Caleb tucked the newspaper into his jacket pocket. He hoped he had money for the bus; he'd planned on bumming it from Shora. "Look, if you don't want to date me, that's fine. You're a little young, anyway. But maybe you should get some help. Like from a doctor."
"Because my parents were robots?"
"More like, because you think your parents were robots."
She shook her head. "I already told you. They weren't really robots." She shut the door.
"Fuck you," Caleb said to the door. "Frigid bitch."
He turned and crossed the lawn. A gardener watered the flowers, swinging the hose like a great green snake. Caleb winced as the spray hit him, soaking his newspaper, ruining it. He glared at the gardener. But the gardener didn't meet his gaze, just kept staring toward that middle distance.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Author Comments

Many people have distant relationships with their parents, but what if that distance wasn't only due to incompatible personalities? What would a person's interactions with society look like if they were raised by literal machines? Did Shora's cold upbringing doom a budding romance, or does its implosion have more to do with Caleb's inability to adjust to what might be a new paradigm? A lot of "what-ifs" in here, I know. This is a pretty personal story written in the last hours of 2012, and while the event that inspired the tale was disappointing, at least I got a good story out of it.

- Erica L. Satifka
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