The Songbird

by: Chris Thompson1

A glimpse into a wild future where what we all take for granted is starting to slowly fall apart…

thesongbird

The first thing Calen saw when he opened his eyes that morning was Jessie. She was down the short hallway in the kitchen, her long slender legs leading up to her round ass and the black lace nightie she often wore to bed. His eyes followed the round curves of her body up to her chest and her toned arms and then Calen sucked in his breath with alarm. Jessie was leaning over the toaster trying to pry out a stuck piece of bread with a fork. Calen could see that the toaster was still plugged in and he leaped from the bed, the blankets flying up into the air, and sprinted the short distance from their bedroom to the kitchen.

“Jessie. No!” Calen exclaimed, slapping the fork forcefully from her hand and ripping the toasters plug from the wall.

“Owwww. What’s your problem, Cal?” Jessie yelled, cradling her left hand with her right. She looked pissed and ready to fight. “You still upset about what I said last night?”

“My problem is that what you’re doing is a fucking easy way to get yourself electrocuted.”

“What? No it won’t….”‘Jessie fired back indignantly. Then a dawn of realization washed across her china white face and her demeanor changed. “Oh. Oh my god, Cal. Oh my god you’re right. How stupid of me. Oh my god, babe, I could’ve….fuck.”

Jessie crumpled like a wet paper bag. She slid down the cabinets slowly, her back to their doors, and parked her perfect ass on the tiled kitchen floor. Her long legs spanned easily the small galley’s length and she began to sob softly. She cradled her wounded hand like she was holding a newborn kitten and looked up at Calen with sad, apologetic eyes. He had seen that look before, on a puppy he had owned when he was a child and his father had scolded it for going to the bathroom in the house.

“I’m so sorry. That could have been really bad. I was just trying to make you a little brekkie. I know how hard you’ve been working lately and I wanted to do something nice. Look,” Jessie said, pointing to the opposite counter and a small bundle of groceries. “I was able to find some real butter and a few eggs. I had to go to five different stores, but I got ’em. For you.”

Calen ran his fingers through his thinning hair. He was forty six and out of shape and his mad dash to the kitchen had stolen his breath. This was the third time in as many weeks that he had prevented Jessie from some kind of catastrophic display of stupidity and he cursed under his breath. The week before she had tried to check the pilot light in their gas fireplace with a lighter, while the gas was on. And the week before that she had sprayed a can of EZ-RoachZap at a line of angry-looking ants in the living room, ignoring the lit candle nearby, and had set a part of the living room wall on fire.

It was getting to the point where Calen was starting to worry that Jessie’s next mistake would do harm to more than just herself. It wasn’t much to look at, but Calen had his apartment to think of. He had sunk all his money into buying it, and he doubted his homeowners insurance covered absentminded destruction. Plus, he had neighbors, a few of them with children, and he’d hate to be responsible for adding to their troubles. The majority of them were barely getting by, just like Calen, and would never recover from even a minor financial mishap. Calen let out a long, worrisome sigh. He wasn’t getting enough sleep. His hours had been cut at the factory and he’d taken a second, mindless job logging code at night just to get by. And Jessie’s latest tendencies – and expensive tastes – weren’t helping at all with his unease.

“It’s okay. You made a mistake is all.” Calen said, dropping to his knees in front of Jessie. He ran his hand down the soft curve of her jaw, marveling again at the fine, velvety feel to her skin. His thumb lingered delicately on her lower lip. He leaned in and kissed her, and Calen felt the familiar enthusiasm Jessie’s model exhibited when she kissed him back.

“Just be more careful. All the brekkie in the world isn’t important to me if it means that I’ve lost you.” Calen said, looking deeply into Jessie’s eyes.

“Okay, luv.” Jessie said, flashing him a smile.

I should put in a service call, Calen thought as he helped her up and into a nearby chair. A professional would know what to do.

He opened up the kitchen’s small, slit-like windows to the city, airing out the smell of burnt toast while trying not to let Jessie see his frown. The warm December air blew in with scents of ozone and dust and decay. The air pressed close to the buildings, as if trying to smother them, and Calen felt it enter the apartment, expanding silently into its newfound void. It had been a record warm winter in New York City, another in a long progression of them, and Calen had begun to wonder if it was even worth calling this season “winter” anymore. At least not here in the city, he felt. Maybe farther north things were different, like in Nova Scotia or Maine. Places you expected to be blanketed with snow in December. Maybe there you could look around for a few weeks out of the year and convince yourself that winter was still a thing.

“How do you want your eggs, babe?” Jessie asked cheerfully, seemingly back to normal, as if Calen hadn’t just saved her again from self-demise. The entire matter was apparently, for the moment, forgotten. She had just lit a cigarette from Calen’s half-finished pack of Tiger Paws and was rolling the small wooden match between her finger and thumb, watching it whirl back and forth. “I was going to make you an omelette, but I couldn’t find any veggies that didn’t look either rotten or queer. Lauren said she found a few tomatoes at Zanzibars, but by the time I’d arrived they were all gone. I couldn’t find any cheese either, so I guess your options this morning are scrambled or fried.”

“Scrambled sounds okay.” Calen replied, suddenly overcome by thirst. He walked over to the cabinet next to their tiny fridge and took out a foil packet of Oh-Jay. He dumped its powdery orange contents into his only coffee mug and filled it with bottled water from the fridge. Instantly the powder sizzled and hissed, thickening until it was indistinguishable from what he imagined fresh-squeezed orange juice looked like. He had only had the real thing once, right before the citrus industry had collapsed, so he wasn’t exactly an expert on the drink.

Her cigarette finished, Jessie stood, smoothed her black nightgown down her legs and returned to the kitchen to cook. She picked up the fork from the floor and put it back in the drawer. Calen watched her skeptically out of the corner of his eye as he downed the artificial orange juice. He opened a second packet of the powdered fizz and made himself another drink. The mug made a crunching sound as he set it down on the cement countertop, an interloper amongst the fan of blackened crumbs and seeds that had spilled from the overturned toaster.

Calen grabbed the toaster forcibly and brought it over to the sink. He turned it upside down and vigorously shook out the stuck piece of bread. What was left of the crumbs, seeds, and shards of blackened bits, from months of making toast, fell like snow, coating the dishes in the bottom of the sink in shades of browns and blacks and tans. At least it’s snowing somewhere, Calen thought as he set the toaster back down.

“No more toast for a little while, okay?” Calen said to Jessie as much as he did to the toaster. “Not until I find someone who knows where we can get one that works.”

“Okay, babe.” Jessie said indifferently as she stared down at the frying pan. “You know best.”

Calen grabbed his blueBell from the living room and made his way down the hall to the bedroom. “I need to call work, babe,” he lied as he slid the bedroom’s pocket doors partially-closed. In the shadowy half light of the bedroom Calen dialed the number for the service center instead. As he waited for the call to connect, he watched Jessie’s delicate choreography as she set about making his breakfast. To the outward observer, her movements seemed ordinary. But to Calen’s seasoned eye, he could tell the subtle differences that distinguished a Jessie model from a real woman. As the phone finally connected, Calen’s frustrated demeanor thawed slightly as the sound of Jessie singing softly to herself drifted in.

“LyfeMate Incorporated. Service’s Division. Good morning. This is Technician VeeJay. Please state your model type and the nature of your call.” The flinty voice on the other end of the line spoke.

“Hello, I think I’m having a problem with my partner,” Calen half-whispered, his hand covering his mouth. “She’s a Jessie model, level Seven. I think she’s been subconsciously trying to kill herself.”

“Okay, sir, it’s not that uncommon—”

“Really?” Calen interrupted, surprised.

“Yes. Now here’s what I want you to do.”

Calen had just finished his call with Technician VeeJay when Jessie strolled into the bedroom. She carried a green bamboo tray with his breakfast on it, including a small blue vase with a single, purple and gold, exotic-looking flower that he had never seen before. “Viola!” Jessie exclaimed as she placed the tray on the duvet.

She glowed with satisfaction and sat down beside Calen on the worn leather bench at the foot of their bed. A grandfather Calen had never known had left the bench to him along with an old, cracked oil painting of what the Grand Canyon had looked like before the government had turned it into a federal dumping ground and filled the whole thing in. Calen had bartered the painting for a red silk dress for Jessie and a pair of black heels. She had rewarded him with endless sex for days.

Jessie crossed her legs and placed her hand on Calen’s thigh, not high enough to make the gesture overtly sexual, but in a seductive enough manner that had he been in a better mood, Calen might have taken her to bed.

“What’s wrong, love?” Jessie asked, frowning slightly.

Calen could tell her programming was fishing for avenues of sympathy, but he wasn’t interested in playing along. “How have you been feeling lately?” Calen answered instead. “I’m more interested in that than telling you all the boring things that are wrong with me.”

“Calen. Why won’t you let me in?” Jessie begged, an aura of uneasiness to her timber. Calen looked down as she guided her hand further up his thigh. He grabbed her hand in frustration and placed it in his, deflecting Jessie’s textbook, preprogrammed inquiry and her attempts at physicality. He wasn’t interested in getting psychoanalyzed by a LyfeMate Seven Human Companion at that moment, even if it was his Jessie. And even if she was someone whom he figured he cared for more than anyone currently alive, including himself.

Calen tried a new tack. “Tell me about the bird.”

“The songbird? Oh, why would you want to talk about such a silly thing as that, babe?”

“Because it’s important to you. I can tell, for one. And because birds don’t exist anymore, which makes me curious about what you saw. Because I heard you singing and talking to it the other day when I came home. I was about to let myself in, but then I heard you singing that song, and I lingered outside the door for a moment and listened to you. Because for a hundred different reasons, I want to know.”

“Oh, you’re such a sneak, Calen Yorke!” Jessie exclaimed, slapping his arm playfully and grinning sideways at him. “You’re always creeping around the city looking in people’s windows or leaning in to hear them talk on the train, when what you really should be doing is paying attention to your own life, instead of worrying about everyone else’s.”

“I’m no sneak. I just liked the way you were singing and I didn’t want to intrude. Plus, like I said, I’m curious. It’s such a beautiful song. Where did you say you heard it?”

“It was playing on an old record player outside a bodega in East Harlem. You know Gessa? Craig’s Model Five? Well, I was strolling down Lex with Gessa on the hunt for some wool. Gessa had it in her mind that she was going to knit Craig a sweater. A real, actual sweater, can you believe that? And I really liked the song, so I stopped to listen.”

“And what’s the name of the song?”

“Oh, Cal, why are you making me talk about all this? It’s embarrassing. I want to talk about you, silly. About us.”

“It’s from a long, long time ago, the song, right?”

“Yes, it’s from 1923. It’s called “Down Hearted Blues” by a woman who was called Bessie Smith. Did you know she was once known as the Empress of the Blues? ”

Calen just smiled at Jessie and nodded. His stomach was a jumble of butterflies.  “Can you sing the song for me?”

“Oh, Calen, I’m too embarrassed. You’ll be the death of me.”

“I’d like to hear it.” Calen managed to speak. He was starting to feel sick.

“Are you serious?”

Calen nodded his head.

“Well, okay, if you insist.”

Calen closed his eyes as Jessie began to sing. He tried to focus on the words. The melody. On anything but what he was about to do. He’d listened to an original recording of the song a few weeks back and Jessie’s imitation of the Empress of Blues powerful yet soulful voice amazed him.

“The next man I get he’s got to promise to be mine, all mine

If I could only find the man oh how happy I would be

To the good Lord ev’ry night I pray

Please send my man back to me

I’ve almost worried myself to death wond’ring why he went away

But just wait and see he’s gonna want me back some sweet day

Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days

Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days

It seems that trouble’s going to follow me to my grave—”

In a flash Calen reached up his hand to what looked like a mole behind Jessie’s left ear and pushed it forcibly in. Immediately she stopped singing, and her form collapsed inward upon herself, her voice trailing off in octaves as the power left her body. Calen laid Jessie back on the bed and folded her hands across her chest, in his mind trying to make her as comfortable as he could. In the rush he had knocked over the vase with the odd flower in it, and when its petals had struck the tray, they had curled up rapidly and turned a sallow, waxen white. It made Calen feel uneasy how similar Jessie’s skin looked to those petals, and he pushed down a wave of guilt for what he had just done. It’s for her own good, Calen reminded himself. Feeling around the covers of the bed blindly, he found his blueBell and dialed Technician Veejay’s direct line.

“Hel….hello, Veej? It’s Calen. It’s done. How soon can we meet?”

An hour later Calen was hundreds of feet underground, perspiring in the close-pressed, smothering heat of Manhattan’s bowels, waiting for an uptown train to a LyfeMate service center. He had broken Jessie down and placed her in the wheeled, hard-shelled case that had come with her model. It always seemed so surreal to Calen that such a vivid, engaging creature such as his Jessie could be so easily rendered inanimate. He half expected to hear her muffled cries and pleas for release as he waited for the train to arrive.

“What’s wrong with yours?” a short, balding man with watery eyes standing next to Calen asked. He had a similar looking case, except for the word “Jessie” he’d stenciled on it in purple paint. The man’s clothes were wrinkled and unkempt, like he had slept in them. It was obvious to Calen that the man’s LyfeMate was the one who made sure he was properly dressed.

Calen pulled his handkerchief down from around his nose and mouth. “She’s, ummmm, acting weird,” Calen replied, motioning to his case. “I think she’s messed up her self-preservation protocol. She keeps doing things that make me think she’s trying to off herself.”

“Oh yeah? That’s a new one. Never heard of a Jessie trying to commit suicide. Figured that’s one of their core protocols, you know? ‘Do No Harm.’”

“Yeah, that’s what I figured too, but three times in as many weeks makes me think that something’s gone wrong. Better to be safe than to find her actually following through, you know? How about you? What’s wrong with yours?”

“She keeps trying to convince me that she’s pregnant, as if that was even possible.”

“Wow! That’s wild.”

“I know! We live in a world where men outnumber women, real women, five thousand to one and everyone’s screaming that if we don’t get them all pregnant it’s curtains for us as a race and here I go and get the only robot who thinks she’s pregnant. And the thing is, she’s damn convincing if I give her a chance to make her case. Sometimes I’m just too darn tired to put up a fight. I almost fell for it a few times, had my hand on the phone to the doctor to schedule an exam, but then I wised up. Came to my senses. Robots, huh? Am I right?”

“Yeah, you said it, buddy. Can you imagine that, a Jessie actually pregnant with a half-human, half-robot kid?”

“That’s not the craziest story. Let me tell you about the time my Jessie told me she saw a songbird.”

  1. Header illustration is by the extremely talented artist Terry Fan. []

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