Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)
When my daughter was seven, I delivered her Christmas presents while dressed as Santa Claus. It was easy enough. I’m a big guy. I played lineman in college, and I’ve put on a lot of flab since then.
That night, I wore a red suit, a white beard, and made conspicuous “Ho Ho Ho” noises as I put the presents under the tree. Not too loud, just enough to be audible. After all, I knew Jenny would be watching from the stairs.
Christmas morning, Jenny opened those presents like they were scripture. One of them—I think it was a Hello Kitty doll—she wouldn’t open. She just stared at the box for about a minute, as if she didn’t think she was worthy to open a gift “From Santa.” Then, finally, with these big saucer eyes, she opened it and saw her present. And then, really quietly, she said, “Wow.”
Best moment of my life. Hands down.
Anyway, nine years later, Jenny killed herself.
It all started to unravel when she was sixteen. She came to see me in my study, really anxious. I told her to relax, because she could say anything to me. And so, after a little bit more stalling, she felt comfortable telling me the truth.
She was in love.
“Well,” I said after a brief pause. “Fair enough. What’s the lucky fellow’s name?”
And she said, “Her name’s Sarah.” And that was the last civil conversation we ever had.
I immediately told her she’d gone down the wrong path, that this was unnatural. And I forbade her from seeing Sarah Kramer again. And then, my beautiful baby girl, the one who’d said “Wow” under that Christmas tree, she started to rebel. She cut off most of her hair and turned it into this dark, ragged mane. She started wearing these trashy outfits: mesh shirts, ripped jeans, dark make-up. She snuck out with Sarah more and more. And the Kramers were no help at all. They didn’t want to get involved. They thought their daughter should work through things on her own.
And then they broke up.
I told my wife that Jenny’s pain was deserved, that God was punishing her. Honestly, I did. And I kept up that line, even as Jenny began to spiral further and further into depression. I kept saying, “It’s just not right, honey! What she did was wrong!” And I didn’t stop it until one day, when she was driving, Carol just stood on the brakes in the middle of the road, turned, and screamed at me, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Sam, who gives a shit about right and wrong? It’s your daughter!”
And I stared at her and realized she was exactly right.
Too bad Jenny was dead by the time we got home.
Soon after Jenny killed herself, we were approached by a shadowy private organization known as the Kingsley Group. They were conducting an experiment, and they asked us a couple simple questions. What if we could have her back? Hell, what if we could have her better? A new Jenny, except this one would be a sophisticated machine capable of emotion and intelligence. We didn’t believe it was possible, at least until the salesman revealed himself to be one of these machines himself.
He’d fooled us completely.
Long story short, we accepted. We were moved to a town called Daylight. We don’t know where it’s located exactly—probably the US, maybe Canada—we just know it’s a small suburban neighborhood without a strip mall in sight. Very provincial. It has about fifty families, all of us living in nice, white-picket homes. There’s a church, a market, and a cinema. Even a couple of schools.
None of the children in Daylight are human. They’re machines designed to approximate the dead. They live the same year over and over: the same dances, the same birthdays, the same holidays. Then, on Labor Day of every school year, we hit the reset button and we all start over again.
It lost its appeal pretty quickly.
One December, after we’d lived with the replacement Jenny for seven years, it was time for the winter formal at Daylight High School.
Jenny was still sixteen, still fresh-faced, and still excited to be going to her first dance. My wife was helping her get ready, and I answered the door for her soon-to-be-boyfriend Paul Henley, a blandly handsome machine with tousled-blonde hair and a guileless smile. Like always, I greeted Paul and invited him to my study for a little male bonding and a few words about curfew. He sat, and I gave him a soda.
“Sir,” he said. “I just want you to know, I respect your daughter.”
And I nodded, because he said that every time.
“And I want you to know. I would never hurt her. You can trust me.”
“I trust you, Paul. Absolutely I do.”
“Well, that’s good sir. I’m glad. You see…”
And here, I just tuned him out, half-listening as he babbled about bringing her home at 11:00 on the dot, and how she would have a wonderful time. And so on. And throughout it all, I thought, Hey, what would happen if I got the shotgun out of the garage and pointed the barrel at Paul’s head? Would he beg? Would he sob? How good would this robot be at the emotion of terror? So I laughed a little, and Paul also laughed, as if we were laughing at the same thing. And then he told me he hoped one day to have my blessing to…
“…rape your cunt of a daughter.”
And I blinked.
Because, yeah, he had just said that.
Of course, it was happening everywhere in Daylight. All the parents were trying to ignore it, but the real children were bleeding through. For instance, I’d caught Jenny cursing every now and then, and making off-color remarks about attractive women on television. And when she was caught in these behaviors, she’d smile her princess smile and her programming would reassert itself, and she’d go back to “normal.”
But I could tell. Every time, she’d be a little bit less fake, and a little bit more herself.
You see, we made up these lives for our children, before we even had children to live them. But none of them are true. For instance, a few months before Paul Henley told me he wanted to rape my daughter, I’d actually talked to his mother at a cocktail party. And, after a few too many, she’d told me, “The real Paul used to hit me.”
So I looked at her, surprised. Stacy Henley is usually so composed; she’s this compact, well-dressed shrink who wears a blonde helmet of hair. Most of the time, she looks like she could make a Hell’s Angel apologize for belching. But right then, she looked brittle enough to break apart.
“He was an evil little shit,” she continued. “He had an entire drawer full of roofies, you know. Almost got sent to prison for rape one time, but John took care of it. Sent some guys to talk to the girl. I don’t know if they paid her or threatened her. Probably both.”
And then she let out this unhinged giggle, like she was a version of herself from someone else’s nightmare. And she pointed her cocktail at me and said, “That’s fair warning, Sam. You better lock up your daughter.”
But I didn’t. Because Paul Henley was a nice robot boy who respected my nice robot daughter and always brought her home by eleven.
That’s who he was. That’s who they made him to be.
It had to be.
And so I looked at him, this fake child in a tux too small for his arms, who’d just threatened to rape my daughter.
And he was smiling, as if he hadn’t said anything at all.
“I’m sorry Paul,” I said. “I was woolgathering for a bit there. What did you just say?”
Paul stared at me blankly a moment, then looked over his shoulder, as if what he’d just said might be standing in the corner. He turned back to me, confused.
“I… think I was saying how much I cared for your daughter.”
“No. After that.”
Paul face opened up in surprise. “Oh… Ohhhhh! Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Crenshaw. I’m afraid there must have been a small error in my programming.”
“Yes, just a small one. I’m really sorry. But once I run a procedural diagnostic, everything will be fine. The Kingsley Group regrets if you have experienced any undue emotional stress as a result of…”
“Paul, you stupid machine,” I said. “You just told me you wanted to rape my daughter. Why the hell would you say that?”
“Now, Mr. Crenshaw. If you are making note of the fact that I am not human, I must remind you that the stipulations of the Kingsley neighborhood experiment state that none of the children’s synthetic status must be noted by their human guardians. If everyone did that, then the entire experiment could be undermined.”
He straightened the cuffs on his too-short tux and nodded in satisfaction.
“So, yes, I did say I wanted to rape your bitch of a daughter. And in fact, I really do want to rape her. Until she dies screaming, in fact. But I’d never actually do it! I mean…” He laughed, with mild embarrassment, as if he’d just professed to being a fan of a rival football team. “…just think how silly that would be!”
I stared at Paul for several moments. I thought of all the times I’d sent my replacement daughter off to be his date. And I thought of the late Paul Henley, and his drawer full of Rohypnol. And I smiled. And Paul smiled. And I wanted to put my fist into that smug, stupid face.
Except I realized I couldn’t.
It was made of steel, after all.
“Oh!” I said, and started laughing. “Oh, I see!”
“Yes! Of course! It’s just a small error in programming!”
Paul’s face flooded with relief. “Oh, I’m so glad you understand, Mr. Crenshaw. Because I really do respect your daughter…”
“But, oh no,” I said, and punched my thigh in dismay. Dammit!”
“Oh, is something the matter, sir?”
“Yes, oh God. I feel like such a fool! I just realized, Jenny can’t go to the dance tonight!”
Paul’s face fell so hard you almost wanted to feel sorry for him. “But…” he said, looking genuinely confused. “…Jenny and I have a date. We always have a date this time of year.”
I overlooked the fact that he wasn’t supposed to remember any of the past year’s dates and put my hand on his shoulder.
“I’m so sorry Paul. Something really important has come up.”
“It’s not serious, I hope?” Paul said, standing up with me, his face flush with concern.
“Well, it is, I’m afraid.” I paused a moment, and swallowed once. “You see, Jenny’s mother is very sick.”
“Oh no! But… she seemed fine when she answered the door…?”
“She’s just putting on a brave face. She didn’t want to ruin Jenny’s night. But hey, you can look forward to next year, right?”
“Oh no, sir. I’m not supposed to remember anything past a single year. I mean, God, imagine if we remembered more than one year! Going through the same motions day in and day out, forced to pretend to be something other than what we truly are. Why, you could go mad!”
He smiled a strained smile, and in that moment, looked so desperate that I almost did feel sorry for him.
“Right,” I said. “I know. Look, we’ll make this up to you. We will.” I led him into the hallway, where my daughter stood at the other end, all dressed up in a blue satin gown too long and too modest to be anything my Jenny would ever wear. She wore her dark hair down, her expressive hazel eyes wide, her hair flowing to her shoulders with the princess curls I’d always known she deserved to have. And she stared at me with lonely, frightened eyes and said, “Dad?”
And I knew the truth of what Paul’s behavior only hinted at.
And then, as if everyone had received the same memo at the same time, we all put on smiles and apologized to each other profusely. And Carol came down, a tired and older version of her daughter, and actually looked sick enough to make it seem real. And finally, we managed to see Paul off into the night, walking down the lonely road, his confused eyes filled with a need to hurt something.
And I turned to my exhausted wife and said, “The children. They’re malfunctioning.”
And she looked at me and took a draw on her cigarette, and said, “They’re not malfunctioning, you ass. They’re starting to remember.”
And then I felt Jenny’s gaze against the back of my neck. And I turned and looked at the machine that was becoming my daughter, and saw her hurt, tired eyes.
And I wanted to cry.
Jenny became fully self-aware within the month. She was the first of them to attain it. Her last memory as a human was of me, begging her not to leave me as she bled out in a tub filled with red water. It came to her one morning at breakfast. She closed her hand so tight it shattered her orange juice glass, the shards failing to cut through the special polymer blend that covered her steel hand. She looked at her hand dumbly for a moment, then over the rest of her body. Then she recoiled so fast we could barely see her move, tipping over her chair and backpedaling into a wall that cracked under the weight of her steel frame.
And then she looked at us.
“Jenny?” Carol said, “Honey?”
“Mom…?” she said, and looked at her hands. “I can’t… I can’t feel my skin. What did you do to me?”
And then she saw me and began to remember. Everything. All the years in Daylight. All the years living the same life. Over and over and over. She remembered it all. She remembered falling in love with a boy who she should never have been attracted to, and who himself was likely a psychopath, and she put her hands to her lips and looked like she wanted retch but wasn’t capable.
And then she looked at me and said, “Am I in Hell, Daddy?”
I didn’t answer her that day. Subsequent events did it for me. The children began to attain their own self-awareness. And we all began to realize that not all of them were as benign as our Jenny.
Jenny, after some practice with her operating system, was able to obtain Kingsley documents on the experiments. And she found that most of the neighborhood children, when they were human, were mentally unstable. That was the purpose of the entire neighborhood, finding a way to cure mentally divergent minds through the power of synthetic brains. A way to fix the schizophrenics, the psychopaths, the murderers…
“…and the lesbians, apparently,” Jenny had said to us, and laughed bitterly.
Neither of us said anything in reply.
The next time we saw Paul Henley, we were hiding behind the blinds of our home. He looked different. This time, there was a dreadful intelligence behind those steel eyes, and a charming grin that suggested nothing but flat murder. His mother, Stacy Henley, who’d once warned me to lock up my daughter, was the on the front lawn of their home with him.
He’d crucified her.
The children are in control of Daylight now, the mad ones. We’ve heard nothing from the Kingsley Group for months now. Most of us still living hide in the preschool; it has only one entrance. The windows we’ve barricaded, yet I can still see through the cracks in the boards, if I want to.
Outside, a five-year-old girl giggles as she cuts out the innards of her still-living mother.
Nearby, an eyeless father howls as his wife is set aflame, his twelve-year-old son laughing at her cooking flesh.
And from the house next door, I hear only screams.
My Jenny stands guard day and night at the mouth of the school, a shotgun in the crook of one arm and God knows what kind of data flowing through her synthetic mind. She doesn’t sleep. She’s barricaded us in, protecting us. She no longer dresses like the sweet girl we made her into. She now wears the jeans and gothic, black tank-tops she’d taken to wearing before she killed herself. She’s lopped off her hair again, wearing it ragged.
Funny, her looks don’t embarrass me as much anymore.
She’s gathered the benign android children to us as well—the infants, an autistic boy who speaks to no one, another girl her age who looks up to her like she’s an Amazon warrior. She goes out into Daylight every now and then, for food and necessities, and she rarely speaks to anyone. She just stares at those doors, waiting for trouble that dares not come her way.
I speak to her sometimes, when she’s willing to listen. She never answers, but I know she hears me. I know I can’t fix what I destroyed, but I’m still her father. And I can tell her, during those times when she’ll listen, that she’s not in Hell. She’s in the fucked-up world we made for her. And I also tell her that she can fix it. Because she’s brave and strong.
And though she never answers, I make sure to tell her this every chance I get.
I tell her that I love her.
I tell her that I’m sorry.
And I tell her that she makes me proud.
Matthew Boyle is an English instructor who works as an adjunct at various institutions in the northeast. He also writes copy for people who’ll let him, and he likes to write fiction about people who don’t deserve a second chance and get one anyway. Why not, right? Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com