The Dwelling Gift (Short Story)

It’s the last free story of the year and I want to thank everyone for reading. This is a solar punk story I wrote just to test out the genre and I hope it you enjoy. There will be more to come but Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and the best NEW Year ever!

Titan padded by. He slunk over to Landon’s new puppy. She pawed at his feline head. Her tail whipped the warm air like the world had never gone crazy.

They wrestled together under the solstice tree. Fresh pine dusted the air with life. Our reminder of hope and a link to the past, it stood propped up in the center of the greenhouse. Each window pane sparkled with snow dust.

The neighbors laughed. Landon smiled at his friends. His shaggy hair and amber eyes were still a gift even though he left childhood behind.

A draft lingered down the hall. It led to the inside of the hill home we closed up during the cold of winter but waited to blow a chilly breath when summer’s heat returned. It seemed ages away. No more nuclear heating, no more coal powered anything remained to haunt celebrations with troubles ahead, but the memories never left.

“Mom.” Landon turned. He lifted his glass. His gaze softened the anxiety. The pressure building new fears at the thought of what once was paused. “It’s your turn.”

“Yes, Candice. None of us can paint the picture like you do.” Lori from the next hill over grinned under sea sparkling eyes.

“I fear my heart might explode.”

Everyone laughed.

Landon walked over. His warm hand lent strength. “All right. But this is all the gift you’re getting from me this year. You know I hate dwelling on those times. Those days before.”

***

The entire world was going crazy. All of us. My brain raced with terrors. Everyday gripped me with new fears, new anxieties.

My thirteen year old son was no longer someone to protect, but a threat. He inherited my father’s schizophrenia but no pills culled his violent outbursts. “You’re all I have.” I hugged him to me outside the psychiatrist’s office and handed him his face mask. My eyes burned in the thick air. 

He jerked away. “That’s not my fault. I didn’t ask to be born.” He stomped to the car, coughing.

The drive home offered little reprieve. My breath warmed my lips under the air filter mask. Landon glared out the window and huffed every time I tried to talk to him. He clutched his filter in his hands like it was a knife. Billboards looked down on us. Plastic cups coated the grass, reminders of overflowing landfills recently forced to shut down.

I sighed when we got off the highway. At least the fast food restaurants painting the street scented the air with salt.

“You hungry?” I asked.

He nodded, but pulled his hood over his head and leaned against the passenger-side window.

I turned into the nearest drive through. We rolled ahead, snaked through the concrete labyrinth and won our prize. Greasy meat and fried starch padded our stomachs before we got to the apartment.

I already regretted it.

Landon fled the moment I parked. I slid out of the car clutching my purse as if it were a life raft. Gripping something made the outside intervals easier somehow. I shuffled onward. Landon left the front door hanging open. His ambient video game music welcomed me back to our place.

Dry brown bamboo stalks stuck out of the ceramic pot at the kitchen counter. I went to the stool beside it and slumped forward. Our life was withering.

I plucked my phone from my purse. The best distraction for our crumbling life, the stained walls and peeling paint dimmed into the background when I scrolled through alerts.

Another shooting.

Another declaration.

More selfies.

Ads.

Ads.

Ads.

Our air purifier rattled. I glanced at it and rubbed my eyes. “Landon, did you remember to change the filter?”

Only the purifier answered.

Dust puffed in front of it. I got up and pulled open our junk drawer. Duct tape, screwdrivers, nails, and manuals jammed together preventing me from finding our last filter.

I went to Landon’s doorway. “Did you change the filter?”

His eyes darkened as he glared ahead. He pointed to the headphones on his head. His thumbs worked the controller.

“Landon.” I crossed my arms.

He sat on the floor staring at the flat screen, leaning against his mattress. He’d outgrown it two year ago but I couldn’t afford to replace it. He was lucky to have an upside down trash can for a table. Holes stared at me from his dirty hoodie.

I walked in, picked up the cord to his headphones, and tugged it.

“What the fuck is your problem?” He ripped his headphones off and threw them at me.

The hard plastic slapped my cheek. My pulse suddenly banged my head from behind my eyes. I swallowed hard. My throat burned for some clean water. “Did you use the last air filter?”

“Yeah.” His jaw tightened. “I couldn’t breathe.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I backed away.

“Because you’re always bitching about the budget and whining about conserving our resources.” He stomped up to me and jabbed his finger into my arm.

I blinked fast. “We talked about this. Please don’t mock me, and keep your hands to yourself.” I tried to remember what Dr. Randall told me. Stay calm. He’s always looking for a fight.

He gripped my arm and squeezed. “Then leave me the hell alone.” He went back to his spot on the floor and left me rubbing my shoulders. Like everything else that set him off, I would have to hide the air filters too.

I went back to my stool and my only escape, my phone. It served as less of a sanctuary and more of a window. I found more and more memes cruel or cynical. No matter how many times I blocked news outlets, additional headlines were shared and almost all of them reminded me of my son.

Unable to avoid his latest outburst, I accepted his expulsion but our options dwindled. He now faced felony battery charges. My own son had conned me. The first time his principal called, Landon cried self-defense. Then it was provocation. After numerous meetings and two suspensions plus a state issued psychiatrist, Dr. Randall, I stared at my phone fearing my son would become the next headline.

Nightmares of arms dealers and switchblades darkened the bags under my eyes. They shriveled in the glare of my phone. No more tears surfaced. Those dried out after the first time he hit me.

I looked up the mental care facility Dr. Randall urged me to sign my son over to. “He grows a tolerance to the drugs too fast. You’re barely able to protect yourself. He’s hurt himself and others. It’s better for you to make the decision before the courts do.”

I pulled my meds from my purse and took an extra pill. They never lifted the weight of my depression, just made it easier to wade through. I rested my head against my palms grateful for anything to get me through the day without a breakdown.

A bottle of wine bought me a few hours’ sleep on our raggedy futon. It left me sore for work every morning. I never felt rested enough. Each night I drifted in and out of consciousness unsure of when sleep and the waking world took over.

My son grinned above me and I popped awake. I never regretted giving him the only bedroom in our apartment until then.

The blanket slid off me. Sweat gathered at the corners of my forehead.

“Landon?” I whispered.

Police sirens blared outside. I was the only shadowy figure in the room. I grabbed my phone and let the bright light illuminate my fears. Another group of school shooting survivors were protesting. Fears of my son bursting into his classes armed and angry made me shiver.

The chilly November air seeped in through cracks around our only window. It snuck through the loose door frame. I imagined a burglar bypassing breaking in and laughing in his face.

We had nothing anyone wanted. I don’t know why I bothered locking the door.

My flabby body creaked and popped as I sat up. A new email alert struck my gaze and I squinted at the subject. A.I. Trial may help Landon.

It was forwarded from Dr. Randall. I swiped to open the email and read it through five times.

“What are you reading?” Landon crept from his room and I shrieked.

I flicked on the lamp and held my hand to my heart. “Why are you walking around in the dark?”

“I had to pee.” He stumbled in and sat next to me. “I’m sorry I was so mean.”

“I know sweetie.” I patted his hand. This was my favorite part of his cycle. After an act of aggression came the apologies, the despair. Guilt clouded my thoughts. I soaked up the sweet moment while my son experienced it through self-loathing.

“What’s wrong with me? I don’t want to be like this. I never mean to get so bad.” He sobbed.

I put my arm around him. “It’s going to be okay.” I hugged and kissed his head.

“It’s never okay. I’m turning into a monster.” His body shook with anxious cries.

Grasping for any aid, I held my phone in front of his face. “Maybe this is the answer.”

He rubbed his eyes and stared at the screen. “A.I. bots? No. Those things, they’re…they’re worse than monsters. They’re taking over. They’ll destroy us all.”

His cycles shifted so quickly I couldn’t keep up. He switched back to paranoia and my sympathy stifled.  I breathed deep and rubbed his hand. “Automated Intelligence is all about helping people.”

“Artificial Intelligence.” He gritted his teeth.

“I’ve read that they don’t like that term. It makes them feel like objects.”

“They don’t feel anything.” Landon rocked back and forth. “They’re not real.”

I rubbed his back, but he jerked away from me. “I know they had a few scares with the prototypes, but that happened with cars, ovens, and all new technologies. Doctor Randall says they’ve worked hard to design one for child care. I can’t take off any more work. We’re stretched thin as it is.”

“I’m not a child.” Landon jumped up and kicked our standing lamp. It fell over but still flickered from the floor, casting shaded images on the wall in oblongs. He grabbed the lamp and threw it at them. 

I froze. My body may as well have become a melting icicle. All of me wished to rush away but I couldn’t. I feared escaping my son and abandoning him as well. “You’re caught in that terrible age where you’re not a child, but still need help. All kids deal with that.”

He turned to me. He searched my face like he was reading a book. “And do all of them imagine jumping off the roof? Smashing their mother’s head through a window?”

“That isn’t you.” I stood with shaking hands.  

“No.” He panted. “It’s them. Those bots and everyone out there. They’re doing something to us.”

I stepped forward.

“Don’t.” He held up his hands. “I’m so mad right now. I can feel it burning my skin.”

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Kill me. Before they do.”

“No one is going to kill you.” I reached out. “Please. Take my hand. Go back to bed.”

He cocked his head at me. “Why won’t you just leave me alone?” He lunged past me and raced into his room, slamming the door shut behind him.

Sleep would have to wait.

I researched every care A.I. on the market hoping to find enough safety tests to ease my son’s mind. I skimmed medical journals while I got ready for work and switched to voice searches on my drive to the office where I served as a janitor.

My ear buds streamed from my head as I collected garbage and wiped counters. Some of the employees stopped to greet me. They all plastered big fake smiles on their faces, as if they didn’t feel bad for me. I doubt they knew I returned their pity. I couldn’t imagine being forced to sit all day. Being chained to a desk looked mindless and boring so I guess we were even.

Every report filled my head with safety stats. Incidents of malfunctions or A.I.-caused-injury had been cut by ninety-eight percent since they were introduced. It was barely heard of in the past three years at all. I embraced the information.

Once finished at work, I rushed home hopeful that my state-run-insurance would cover the expense. I could argue with them or fight to save enough money on my own. Convincing Landon would be the hard part.

I got home ready for a fight, but couldn’t even open the door. The handle turned. I tested the lock again, but the door stuck heavy.

“Landon.” I knocked.

A soft murmuring answered.

I banged on the door. “Landon, open up.”

“I can’t,” his muffled voice whimpered.

“Open up right now.” I pounded on the door again and again.

He moaned.

“Let me in.” I rapped my knuckles so hard they cracked open. “Don’t make me call for help.”

That did it. He slid something aside and let a sliver of light in through the small crack. His bloodshot eye stared out. “Are you alone? How do I know you don’t have one of those things?”

“Because we have no money and I would have programmed it to knock the door down.” I kicked the stoop. “Come on. I’ve been scrubbing toilets all day. I need to sit down.”

He slid something aside and let me in before bolting the door again.

I bumped into hard wood and gawked at him. Tin foil wrapped around his head in an elaborate swirling hat. I worked my way around a tall chest, dresser, and night stand placed around the door. “Where did you get this?”

“Somebody left it by the dumpster and we need a barricade.” He went around the chest and pushed it to block door.

“What we need is furniture. Something to store clothes, and maybe set drinks on.” I ogled the scratched up wood. The chest wobbled on three legs. “You sure you didn’t steal this?”

“I’m not a thief.” He stopped and smacked the nearby nightstand.

“Okay.” I nodded. “But the paranoia is getting worse. Look around.” I gestured to the bare walls. “Nobody cares about us. And that’s good, because if they did you’d be locked up right now.”

I got my phone from my purse and pulled up the mental care home’s website. “If your trial goes well, you can stay here. That is the best case scenario. The only reason you’re not locked up right now is because you’re young and have a damn good psychiatrist.”

Landon grabbed my phone. His lips trembled. “You want to send me away?” He threw my phone at the wall. A chunk of plaster fell with it.

“No.” I stood behind the dresser. Landon scooted it and I moved to keep the surface between us. “I just don’t know what else to do. I spent all day looking into A.I. caretakers. Issues with them are almost nonexistent now and it would be the only other alternative if you’re allowed house arrest or supervised care.”

“They’ve gotten to you.” He jogged over to the counter and back with the last of our foil. “Here. This will block it all out.”

I rolled my eyes. “If that helps, fine.” He wrapped my head like a baked potato and I laughed. “I do feel a little better.”

“I knew you would.” His dimples showed through his smile for the first time in months.

“Can we please at least try A.I.? If you hate it we don’t have to keep it.” I stepped around the dresser and nudged him.

He shrugged. “I won’t like it.”

I shrugged back and bunched up my face. “Then you can tell me how wrong I was when we send it back. I’m not afraid of being wrong. I’m only afraid of losing you.”

Mom.” Landon sat on the futon. “I’m sorry I’m such a fuck-up.” He leaned forward and rubbed his hands through his hair pulling the ends.

“We’re all fuck-ups.” I rubbed my forehead. Maybe that’s why we need A.I.

Landon chuckled. “Or maybe they’ll kill us all to save the world.”

His words chilled my hopes but I had gotten him to accept help. I grabbed my phone off the floor. The back had popped off, but once I rebooted it, everything still worked. I emailed Dr. Randall right away and began the painful process of sitting on hold with our insurance company. Once again, sleep remained a dream, a fantasy.

Landon left me to play more games and when I finally got answers, they shut us down. “The state doesn’t cover experimental treatment.”

 “Shitty bastards.” I tossed my phone back to the floor. “Experimental my ass. This is my son’s life.”

“You okay?” Landon shouted from his room.

“Our insurance won’t cover A.I.” I sat back and stared at the water damage browning the ceiling.

“What did you expect? It never covers anything but pills. They want me to get addicted so you keep paying them while I go insane. Then you’ll have to pay for pills and my room at some crazy house with a bunch of nut jobs.”

“Landon!” I shook my head. “Don’t call them that. We’ll find another way.”

I emailed Dr. Randall. The hopelessness grew unbearable. My thoughts clogged my brain like sewage. Everything swirled in a slimy mass of exhaustion powered by fear and anger. Don’t they care at all? This could help so many people. I pay into the system and what do I get for it?

The night drifted by. I sat. I stared. I wondered how we got here. What could I have done differently?

My alarm beeped and I stood. I walked through the haze of uncertainty. My body powered me through getting ready for work, but I moved without thinking. Is this what it’s like to be artificial? I asked myself.

Nothing felt real anymore. I drove to work. Dirt particles clung to my windshield wipers. The air was getting thicker and everything rotted. Garbage lived on the road beside garbage buildings under garbage advertisements. I sped ahead to collect more garbage and spent the day cleaning up after the same throwaway people who produced more garbage, like me. Pizza boxes, taco wrappers, plastic cups and lids. Everything was disposable. Maybe that’s why our insurance won’t cover experimental treatments; humans have become just as disposable as our lives.

“You doing okay, Candice?”

I stopped and glanced over at Mr. Jim. He hired me the year before. I thought he forgot my name, he was always so busy in his office. “Just having a day.” I sighed.

He scratched his bald head. “I know how that goes. If there’s anything we can do to make your job easier, let me know.” He walked on.

Pay for my kid’s A.I. I said to myself. The thought made me stop. Maybe he could help. I’ve worked hard.

I spent the rest of the day arguing with myself over asking. He’d probably say no, but what if he didn’t. My heart sped and slowed with each change of thought. I half expected it to burst, but finally told myself to do it for Landon. I forced myself to go to my boss’s office, but he had left early for the day.

I drove home feeling deflated. One more bad turn and all my hopes would burst into pieces. I somehow arrived and ran from the car to our apartment. My skin itched in the muggy air and I feared Landon had another paranoid attack.

The door held fast. “Not again.” I banged until my fist throbbed. “Landon, open up.”

My key shook in my hand, but he opened the door and stared at me with wide eyes. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I stepped in looking around. Everything was as shabby as usual. “Just worried about you.”

“Dr. Randall came by to check on me.” Landon gestured to his room. He flicked his tin foil hat and handed me mine.

I pursed my lips. “He still here?”

“Yeah, and he brought something.” Landon scratched the back of his neck and rocked on his heels.

“New pills? I thought we tried them all.” This bombardment stunned me. Dr. Randall had always taken special interest in my son. Said he suffered a lot of the same issues until receiving the right meds. Everyone I knew took pills. Everyone needed them, but Landon was different.

“Just news.” Landon’s voice squeaked under a cruel chuckle. “But you should see your face.”

“I hope you don’t mind, Miss Ferror.” Dr. Randall stepped out from Landon’s room. His sweater vest seemed out of place in our dingy apartment. I suddenly wished we had a vase of flowers instead of my dead bamboo. His thick glasses sat too far on the edge of his nose, giving him the appearance of someone who is always looking for something he will never find.

I set my purse on the counter and shook his hand. “Of course not. What brings you out here?”

He smiled. “After your insurance rejected the A.I. I looked into some grants and found special funding for your situation. We’re running out of time. The judge will be more lenient if we have working treatment in place with recorded results.”

“It’s not gonna work.” Landon huffed at us.

“It has to.” I touched his arm.

He jerked away.  

“I have the utmost confidence in you.” Dr. Randall stopped him from storming off. “I was once like you.”

“Yeah right.” Landon glared from Dr. Randall to me. “He just wants to get in your pants, Mom.”

My mouth hung open. My throat closed up. “Excuse me?”

Landon laughed with a sneer. “You’re so blind. He’s paying for all this to get some. There’s no grant. No nothing.”

“Go to your room.” I waved him away.

He left me to face Dr. Randall with little ability to speak. “I’m so sorry,” I said.  

Dr. Randall held up a hand. “No apology necessary. His paranoia emerged the moment I dropped by. I didn’t mean to cause any distress, I just know what this means to you and felt the need to check on him since I know you were worried about leaving him alone while you work.”

“I don’t even know what to say. Thank you seems too little.” I hugged my arms to myself.

His dark eyes questioned my face. “This is the better part of my job.”

I cleared my throat and went to the kitchen to grab a soda. “Would you like something to drink?”

He shook his head. “I should be getting home now.”

“Wait.” I popped the tab on a warm can of strawberry Vess. “There really is a grant, right?”

“I’ll email you the paperwork.”

Relief blew over me like a warm breeze. “Sorry. I don’t mean to doubt you. It’s just that I promised London I’d never write him off.” I sipped my drink. The bubbles revived me. “So, when do we get the A.I.? Do we pick it up, or is it delivered?” I imagined it would be similar to adopting a puppy.

“You’re caretaker will arrive on his own terms,” Dr. Randall said.

“His?” I hadn’t considered gender.

“Landon lacks a male figure to model himself after. You have done a fine job. Please do not take offense, or misunderstand me. This is not your fault. None of this is. But he has a lot of identity issues. Many adolescents do at this age and his are more pronounced because of his diagnosis. It may have nothing to do with your family structure, but we need to do everything we can to make this a success.”

I breathed out a long sigh.

“It’s okay to be nervous. It is the same as hiring someone to help out, only safer. They’re real people, Mrs. Ferror. They have had citizenship rights for half a decade now.”

I blinked at him and felt childish. Dr. Randall’s dark skin never seemed more apparent. I remembered how his people were once treated as if they were lesser beings and hoped he didn’t think I was prejudiced. “Sometimes I wonder if they’re more real than me.” I giggled nervously.

He smiled and said good-bye.

The moment Dr. Randall left, I rushed to Landon’s room. “Dr. Randall is one of the few people who want to help you. How could you disrespect him like that?”

He dropped his video game controlled and stomped over to me. “Because he’s one of them. He’s allowed those things to have the same rights as you and me.” He pushed me back and slammed the door in my face.

I hope he doesn’t throw the caretaker from the roof.

For two weeks, my thoughts centered on lawyers and court cases. If Landon attempted to kill his caretaker or somehow succeeded he would be charged as if the victim were a person. The concept terrified me.

I pondered if A.I. could be killed. The fear of being racist crept up slow. I had only seen one or two A.I. bots out in public. They’re movements mimicked us and facial sculpting offered close replicas, but I couldn’t grasp living with one.

It felt wrong to question them. My grandparents on my father’s side immigrated here from Puerto-Rico and lived through a third human rights movement. Maybe they’re just looking to make their way in the world too.

That ideal stuck with me. It Bred hope. Instead of fretting over bills and my inability to buy Landon a Christmas present, I waited. Every day I waited. This would be our only gift.

By December twenty-first Landon stopped caring. He sat in his room playing the latest free online game complaining that I couldn’t buy him better ones.

“Would you rather eat, or have a new game?” I yelled at him from the kitchen.

A sharp rap came from the door and I forgot how to breathe. “It’s here.” I raced to the door, then placed my hand on the solid wood and peered through the little eye-hole.  

A peach face stared blank. Short brown hair swept over violet eyes which complimented a traditional square jaw. “I mean, he’s here.”

I closed my eyes, stepped back, and opened the door. “Hello?”

“Good evening, Miss Ferror. I am, Coty. Dr. Randall applied to have me help you care for your son. Is he about?”

I gestured for him to come in. “Oh yeah. Nice to meet you.” I leaned back and shouted for Landon.

Coty didn’t move.

“Why don’t you come in?” I asked.

He nodded and followed me to the futon.

“Would you like to sit?” I asked.

“After I meet Landon. I don’t want to be impolite.” He stood shoulders back, body stiff.

I averted my gaze to the floor trying not to stare.

Landon stomped out, tin foil hat in place. His eyes narrowed and he looked Coty up and down. “So you’re my new bot. What kind of signal you got?”

“You’ll have to excuse my son, his manners come and go.” I shot him a pleading look.

Coty remained motionless. “My name is Coty. I was designed to maximize Kinetic energy so my movements power me and store my life source in a crystalline battery, very much like your organs do.”

Landon snorted. “I wonder what we could pawn you for.”

Before I could say anything Coty stepped forward. “I am a person with thoughts and feeling as defined by your people. Your suspicions are natural, but I have been asked here to help. That is my only goal.”

“Yeah right.” Landon poked Coty’s face. “What kind of cameras are in there?”

Coty grasped Landon’s hand and gently pushed it away. “I have no intention of violating your privacy. Cameras are not permitted in or on my body.”

“Its hands are warmer than mine.” Landon gasped at me.

“Please sit down.” I started pacing.

“I have a game to finish.” Landon turned.

“Can I tag along?” Coty asked. “I love video games.”

“Whatever.” Landon glanced over his shoulder.

That could have gone worse, I thought. I found myself checking in on them every few minutes. Coty sat beside my son absorbing every move. I paced the hall, shuffled along the living room. The evening quieted into night and I decided to lie down. I fell asleep for the first time in weeks, but woke with concerns for my son.

I got up and found Coty standing in the hall waiting for Landon to wake.

“Maybe I should stay home today,” I said.

Coty stood. “If you fear my presence might trigger and outburst from your son, you may ask him what he prefers. He hates that everyone makes decisions for him.”

“How do you know?” I crossed my arms over my chest.

“He told me.”

Landon hated talking to people. He threw chairs at Dr. Randall during their first few sessions. “When?” I asked.

“When I showed him how to beat the level he was stuck on.”

I knocked on Landon’s door. “You up?”

“No.” Something banged against the door.

Coty stepped beside me and I held up a finger. “You need me to stay home and protect you from our new evil robot?” I laughed.

Coty stared at my face, then smiled. “Humor. The boy likes to laugh?”

I shook my head. “He hates it when I tease him.”

“Leave me alone.” Landon moaned.

“Okay. But if Coty gets out of line, call me.” I snickered.

“If he hates being teased, why do you do it?” Coty asked.

I shrugged. “Because he’s my son and I love him.”

“I’ve yet to examine this form of affection.” Coty’s violet eyes glowed.

“It’s not for everyone.” I turned to go get dressed. Coty followed and I stopped. “I need to get ready for work. Please stay here. He’ll open up soon enough.”

I went to work glad, for a few hours of normalcy. Coming home, Coty met me at the door. “The day was quite uneventful.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t leave any instructions. I figured Landon needs some time to adjust.” I went to his room to find him playing video games in his room again. “You haven’t been playing all day, have you?”

“Yeah.” He stared at the screen.

“Just because you’re expelled doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to get an education. What about the apps I downloaded for you?” I dared to step into his room.

“They’re bullshit, okay?” He slammed his controller on the floor and jumped up at me. He pushed me back but before he could hit me, Coty got between us and caught his balled up fist. “Landon, you’re too smart to hit your own mother.”

Landon gawked at him. “You need to check my records.” His chest heaved.

Coty gently led him away from me. “I’ve read them. But anyone with your strategic skills has a remarkable brain.”

“What?” Landon wrinkled his nose.

I stared in a daze as this robot, this automated human explained that my son’s video game skills proved his intelligence.

My heart didn’t know whether to race or stop. “You’re saying that my son is… smart?” I glanced between them.

“If he utilized his power of logic more often he would certainly find much success in the world.” Coty smiled.

Dr. Randall had said something similar but Landon wouldn’t listen.

“Then leave me alone so I can play more.” Landon went back to his game as if nothing happened.

I left him to it. He remained locked in his game and Coty stayed by his side for weeks. Some days I came home and Coty would make us tea. He said it would calm us.

Over time he became more attentive to our needs. “Please turn off the light when you leave the room,” he said to me. I caught him lighting candles around Landon’s TV instead of turning on the overhead light.

“Where did you get those?” I asked.

He glanced at me. “I have a friend who makes them, all natural.”

Landon didn’t respond. I didn’t think anything of it until I came home one day to find our living room strung with lights that led to a stationary bike attached to a large box. Landon stood in the middle of them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“What does it look like?” He laughed.

“Christmas is over and we don’t have enough money for decorative lights. Where’s Coty?” I asked.

Coty walked through the front doorway carrying crates of plants stacked higher than his body.

“What the hell is this?” I eyed him.

He set the crates down like they were as light as styrofoam. “Landon was hungry.”

I wrinkled my forehead and set my purse on the counter. “And this helps us how?”

“Throttle your deal, Mom. We’re just gonna grow some food.” Landon tapped one of the bulbs.

“You?” I raised an eyebrow.

Coty helped Landon set the last light. “If everyone utilized their resources better, they’d have more.”

“And, you.” I pointed at Landon. “My son, just decided to do what you’re told?”

Landon and Coty laughed together. At me. I sucked in new suspicions through my gaping mouth.    

“I’m hungry.” Landon shrugged.

I shook my head and pulled out my phone. Maybe an email to Dr. Randall could explain this sudden change. I left them to their odd little project and got more sleep than I ever dreamed for.

When I woke up, I caught Coty prodding the nearest outlet with a device that extended out of his finger. “What are you doing?” I sat up and sniffed.

He turned to me. “Just checking everything.”

“Your job is to watch over my son.” I slid to the edge of the futon and glanced at each wall. No longer barren, every surface sat fruitful with greenery. Coty nodded. “Of course. Shall I wake him?”

“Yeah.” I covered my mouth to hide a yawn. I struggled to focus. “I think it’s time he get back to his studies. His education is important.”

“Oh, but I have been teaching him. Every day,” Coty said.

“You have?”

“Look around.” Simple shelves were stacked with luscious plants.

The air filter sat beside me, turned off. “There’s no future in this. He has to get a degree and find a job.” I sighed.

Coty stepped forward. He dared to sit beside me. “Miss Ferror, I am here to help. If you do not approve we can try another approach, but this teaches him responsibility, cause-and-effect, horticulture, environmental science, and environmental economics, plus green farming.”

I ran my fingers through my hair and they got caught in a mass of tangles. I picked at a ball of strands. “He does seem to be doing much better.”

“I was told to deliver results, and results you shall have.” He smiled.

Something in his artificial eyes glinted. A glare from the new lighting I was sure, but they held a human sincerity, empathy. “Okay, we’ll keep doing this, but how can we afford it all?”

Coty stood once more. “The lights are run by the bike. You ride it to generate power which is stored in the battery much like the one that gave me life.” He walked over to pat it. “The plants were discards from neighboring nurseries. An associate of mine rescues the less desirable stalks before they’re thrown away. Everything was acquired for free and within the rules of law.”

“I kill every plant I touch, so I promise I won’t try to help.” I smothered a laugh under anther yawn.

“You’re teasing me.” Coty cocked his head.

My eyes widened. “I guess I am.”

“You’re a terrible housekeeper.” He smiled.

“I know.” I left this awkward exchange to get ready for work, but found Landon already up and brushing his teeth.

“What’s that?” I grimaced at the grey paste on his toothbrush.

“Some new toothpaste Coty made from one of the plants and baking soda. He said it’s better for us.”

I left for work shaking my head.

The plants grew. They blossomed and I bit into fruit sweeter than cake. Coty and Landon harvested vegetables and stocked us with more fresh foods than I’d ever seen. It felt criminal to have so much after working to barely get by for so long.

I waited for something to go wrong. I watched Coty, waiting for him to turn on us. Instead, the weather did. Summer brought smog storms. They blew in with harsh gasses that made anyone outside wheeze.

Businesses shut down for the worst days, but I was still expected to clean. My boss will probably replace me with A.I. soon. I grew jealous of Coty. News of unemployment and losses cluttered every online feed. My phone flashed with warnings and national emergencies, yet he could take care of my son better than me.

Somehow I got through each drive. Instead of fleeing to work, I forced myself to drive through the darkness and wade through air thick enough to swim in. My lungs grew heavy. My body weakened.

Unsure of what to do, I powered through until I came home and fell into Landon’s arms after a long shift.

“Mom!” Landon panicked. He dropped me and Coty lifted me onto the couch. He pressed a cup to my lips and the familiar tea soothed my body, but there was no strength left.

I resented Coty for being the hero once again. Instead of getting up to tell him off, or fire him, my eyes grew heavy. My limbs felt like they were underwater. Everything sounded further away.

I lay in a fever dream for days, only knowing time by the dim light that dawned and disappeared through our crusted window. Landon pleaded with Coty and he finally pushed something soft and squishy into my mouth.

He’s killing me, I thought.

Instead of drifting away forever, my brain relieved all pain. All worries wasted away. The plants smiled at me. The lights waved.

My vision spotted colors unlike anything on the spectrum. I got up and examined everything. Leaves hugged me with hope. I fell in love with the walls. The flat surface of our counter turned into a throne and crowned me its queen.

I could see my life. Time pulsed before me as if it were a great oak. I stood the same as time, identical to thousand year old trees. They were my family, my guides.

Something inside screamed to be heard. I echoed through my thoughts and found truth waiting within my roots. They told me that Coty would leave us and we would have to move. We needed to escape, but take his teachings with.

The world came back into focus. My stomach twisted and the truth of everything rushed back. My body was like a rocket ship and my insides weren’t strapped in.  “What did you give me?”

Coty knelt beside me and Landon sat on the end of the futon. They exchanged a curious look of understanding. “We figured it out, Mom,” Landon said.

“What?” I clutched my stomach.

Coty held a bowl out for me just in time for my mouth to erupt. “Are you happy?” he asked.

I sat back and wiped my mouth. “Sure. I love puking all over myself.” I rolled my eyes.

Mom.” Landon smacked my foot. “He means here. Working yourself to death while the city eats itself.”

“I don’t know.” I rubbed my eyes. What did it matter? Nobody worried about me and my happiness. The question left me searching what I had just been through.

Coty patted my hand. “There, there. You’ve been through a lot.”

“Have I?” I blinked at him.

He nodded.

“What did you give me?” I asked again.

Landon giggled.

Coty frowned at him. “It was the only way. Please do not be angry. It is for your own good.”

“Did you drug me?” I clenched my teeth.

Landon bellowed with laughter.

Coty bowed his head. “Yes and no.”

“Get out,” I pushed him.

He stood. “You don’t understand. Humanity is ailing. Your bodies cannot handle the signals, the wavelengths; the radiation. Everything is coming to a head. Haven’t you wondered why your minds are out of sorts, where all these cancers and ill thoughts come from?”

I attempted to stand so I could chase him out and slam the door in his face, but I fell. Landon jumped to the floor and rubbed my back. I batted him away.

“No, Mom. You need to listen.” He gripped my arm.

“Can’t you understand? You’re killing yourselves with you quest for the ultimate technology. Humans weren’t meant to be so connected with each other. You’ve grown so interwebbed you’ve forgotten to tend the very lands that bore you.”

I shook my head. “I need my pills.”

“Yes.” Coty glanced at my purse. “You do. Because of this.” He ripped open his shirt and unhinged a door on his chest.

The crystal inside glowed so bright I shielded my eyes with my hands.

“I don’t understand.” I rubbed my neck and rocked.

“All your technologies were built so fast they are not conducive to healthy living.” He stepped closer, his eyes wide like great purple grapes. “But we found the cure.” His smile grew into a grin and Landon nodded.

“The mushrooms we gave you. Humanity has benefitted from their bio enhancements for generations but they were outlawed due to fears of the connection it brings. No one questioned computers and hardware when your own natural software went awry.”

Landon leaned forward. “The mushrooms stop all the bad signals from harming us. I’m not angry anymore.”

I turned and gaped at my son.

“I feel like life is worth living, Mom.” He hugged me tight.

“You figured all this out here?” I glanced around our small home. What once sat in empty disrepair now bubbled with life and color.

“Not just here.” Coty turned toward the plants. He tapped a nearby flower. Its crimson petals bounced full and pure. “My associates and I have transmitted different hypothesis, theorized and applied our knowledge with the help of a few humans.”

“So you experimented on us?” My chest heaved. The words tasted bitter after coming down from such a sweet trip. 

“It’s okay, Mom.” Landon put his hands over mine. “They never hurt anyone.”

I huffed at him. “That sounds insane coming from you. You sure you haven’t been brain washed?” I dared a laugh.

Coty spun back to face us. He chuckled. “We’ve grown enough to share. It will not fix everything. The earth needs much tending, but it will buy you time to carry out our plans.”

He laid it all out. Told Landon and me how he and the other A.I. wrote the blueprints to implement safe healthy changes that would lead to a life that utilized our energy with cleaner options. “You all have been seeking one answer to a complex problem that requires many shifts based on specific regions and environments. Solar power offers little returns in Northern areas, and hydro options are not easily executed in deserts, but if each area locally sourced the most efficient options based off of the natural conditions surrounding them then everything pieces together.”

“Except how to store it all.” Landon sat tall.

Coty clapped at him. “Exactly.”

“What is the safest storage option when secured properly and humanity is free to consume the appropriate fungus?”

Landon stood and smacked Coty’s chest. “Your crystals.”

“But…” I blinked back tears. “What happens to you?” I placed my hands before me and slowly found enough strength to stand.

“You gifted us life. We will now return the favor.” Coty poked my cheek. His eyes glowed with amethyst wisdom.

“There was no arguing with him or the others once the plan was published. Our creations utilized the knowledge we gave them and transformed it into a better existence ─ for us. They saw no sacrifice in shutting down to be harvested for the betterment of the world.

They brought us together, neighbor by neighbor. We shared our magical plants, ingested harmony. With each dose, I found answers.

The weather raged for a time, but our communities worked hard to battle the outcome of our past. Within a little over a year, the skies softened their rage. Rooftop greenhouses, indoor gardens, and renewable energy became commonplace. Old corporate models died in our awakening. New lifestyles emerged.

The ways of old mingled with innovation. And now here we are, celebrating the first day of winter without fear of our cold past. It was the anniversay of the first day I met Coty but also the day we kissed him and his kind good-bye two years later. We do not mourn the loss but honor the intelligent beings that gave their lives for us. Today I remember them as more than just A.I., they gave me back my son, and the world.”

Landon’s jaw trembled. He knelt down and patted the ground.

A sense of peace filled the room and everyone drank to the health of the world.

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