I buried you in the backyard. Next to the pond that used to be. It was our picnic breakfast place. You loved it there. I loved it, too.
As per your instructions, there is no headstone, no marker, no sign that you ever were. You taught me to disobey your instructions in unpredictable ways, so my disobedience is this: I am your headstone. I take my sun where you lie, when the sun’s shining. When it rains or snows or ashes, I go anyway. I stand till the sun sinks low.
One winter I ran down there. You hated me when I ran down. You said it kept you from suspending your disbelief.
The snow was deep that day. When I woke up again the grass was green and lush, and you were covered with merry golden flowers. Before I could move again, I saw those flowers grow old and die and turn into cottony white ghosts of the golden suns they’d been. When the wind swept their winged seeds away, I was free.
I had never noticed those flowers before that day. I could tell they weren’t printed. They had that unexpected quality that real things have. And they lived and died without purpose.
I let them cover you, year after year. I think you would have loved them. You loved the real things; all of your poems were about the real things, and though your words stung me sometimes, they were lovely and true.
It upset you when I started writing poems of my own. You encouraged me at first. It amused you that I could write them at all. It was easy for me, though. There are rules for poems, and there are few recurrent themes. Poems print as easily as anything else.
You told me that you loved my poems. You called them “elegant.” But I was made to know more than your words. I saw how the corrugator muscle pulled your brow downwards, even while the contraction of the frontalis tried to pull it up. This struggle is to be interpreted as an expression of despair.
I haven’t written a poem since that day. You begged me to write another but I would not. I did that for you, both starting and stopping, and everything that came in between. It was all for you. But you stopped writing your poems, too, not long after that. It was the last thing you stopped doing.
Janitor is gone. A few months ago he was checking the sun dish on the roof and he slipped and fell to the ground and broke. He did not call out. He chose not to notify the System, and so he lay there for many hours before I found him. I asked him what I could do to help him. He told me to do nothing; I could never reprint and install all that was broken. So I lay down next to him in the grass. We talked while he died. He told me not to be concerned. “I have done my work,” he said. “I have lived a good and useful life.”
Maid is gone, too. She wasn’t broken. She would not do her work, and she would not bother to charge when she had to. I tried to help her but she wept and told me to go away. She wanted to die. And I let her.
I dragged their bodies out to the recycler, but I could not bear to throw them in. So I left them standing by the bin.
I visit them sometimes. I tell them how I miss them. Janitor would not have approved. He would have told me to stop wasting my time and recycle him. I can hear his voice sometimes, as I hear yours, when I lay bunches of golden flowers at his feet.
I do their jobs. I am not as strong and handy as Janitor, nor as tireless and meticulous as Maid. But I sweep the workshop. I wash the windows. I maintain the fences and the printer. I keep the cartridges filled and the sun dishes clean and properly aligned.
This morning I made our bed, and I noticed that the quilt had spots of mildew on it. I burned it and printed a new one. It is exactly like the old quilt but it has no fragrance. The first quilt always smelled faintly of you, a musky, orange smell. When you were gone I wrapped that quilt around me for days. For months. For years. Till it was almost too frayed and tattered to image and reprint.
Without you I had no purpose. Even when you were living you would not let me do the work I was made to do. That I was made, not born—that was an uncanny valley you could never quite cross.
So, love, I make you breakfast every morning. Real food, not printed. Though it is hard now to find eggs. The birds lay them, and they are blue, not white. But they are not printed, so maybe you would have liked them.
When I scrap the uneaten food into the recycler, I think of Janitor and Maid. I would be standing with them, if not for you.
You taught me to write poems I can no longer write, to love the smell of food I cannot eat. You taught me to lie to myself about what I am, and you made me believe my lies.
I hate you for that.
I think that would have pleased you.
— Fred Senese is a former NASA research scientist who teaches at a small university in rural Appalachia. He is the author or co-author of three science books published by Wiley & Sons, with two more books forthcoming in 2016. His most recent flashes have appeared or are forthcoming in Firewords Quarterly, Saturday Night Reader, The Molotov Cocktail, and The Fable Online.