My Android Mother

Growing up, I didn’t really get how my mother was different from the other moms. And I never questioned her love for me. She made picture-perfect pancakes with strawberries and whipped-cream in the morning, strolled with me through a park or a museum in the afternoon, read me fairy tales before bed, and told me she loved me before she planted a dry kiss on my cheek and cooed, “Good night, honey-bunny”.

I took her quirks for granted—her phobia of water, the faint scent of rubbing alcohol on her skin, the way she lifted the fridge with ease when a pea rolled behind it, the quiet whirring when I put my head against her chest.

Maybe I was slow for not putting two and two together. But I never gave any of it a second thought. It was just the way Mom was.

Summer, I sat in the pool with my best friend, Betty. Shrill squeals of laughter erupted from mouths with missing milk teeth. The sun bounced off sunglasses and soda pop bottles. My mother lounged on a chair in capri pants and a white turtleneck, a lifestyle magazine flicked open to the same page for hours. Now I think back on it, I bet she was ‘reading’ hundreds of books at the same time, while keeping her eyes on me.

“Why isn’t your mommy wearing a swimsuit?” Betty asked.

“She can’t swim.”

“Isn’t she hot?”

I shrugged. The temperature never seemed to affect my mom. When icicles hung from the eaves like teeth, and I pretended every breath out was a puff of cigar smoke, she’d run to the store without a coat. She’d be forgetful like that.

But she balked at going out into the rain. If we were in town, we’d wait outside the bakery and listen to the pitter-patter on the striped awning. I craned my neck and stuck out my tongue to catch the rain drops that dribbled from the scalloped border. On our way home, I splashed into puddles, delighting in Mom’s horror.

“You have to wear a swimsuit to the pool, even if you don’t swim,” I whined. “All the other moms wear swimsuits.”

The next time at the pool, my mom was in a brand-new bathing suit with daisies dotted on green. I traced the fine line that circled her wrist with my wet finger.

She recoiled. “Don’t drip on me, darling.”

Mom hated water so much that when she bathed me, she wore a thick vinyl apron and long rubber gloves that came up to her shoulders.

She flinched at every splash, every cannonball.

Betty’s mom waded into the pool, calf-deep. I tugged on Mom’s wrist.

“I’m sorry, baby.” She didn’t budge. “I see that you are sad and disappointed, but I can’t go in the water. I’ll get hurt.”

“You’re no fun!”

When Betty’s mom talked with my mom, her eyes fluttered and her hands fiddled with the bow on her bathing suit. Betty’s mom would say perfectly normal things and blush. “I’m sweating something awful in this heat” or, “I need to use the restroom” or, “Who’s up for ice cream?”—her red face clashing with her ginger hair.

The other moms huddled together on the other side of the pool.

“They shouldn’t have the right to raise children. It’s not natural.”

“How can it love that little girl? That Anny has no feelings.”

I bit a chunk out of my popsicle. The freeze stung my forehead, the pain louder than their voices.

Sometimes, a lady visited us at home. She clutched a clipboard with her long, red nails and asked for a glass of water she would stain with a lipstick crescent. She’d take a seat at the kitchen table and place a clicking device with three dials in front of her. She asked Mom strange questions in a monotone voice.

“Which animal’s life has more value, a pig’s or an ant’s?”

“What is the difference between a friend and a refrigerator?”

“What is more beautiful, a red rose or a rocking chair?”

Mom would sit very still as the needles danced to her answers.

Sometimes the lady turned to me. Had Mommy ever forgotten to cook for me? I told her how Mom sat with me at the table and watched me eat. I’d offer a bite of my lasagna, and she’d shake her head. “Dig in,” she’d say. “It’s all for you.”

I told her too about the gloves when I had to take a bath. The woman nodded—the sound of her nails tapping on the electronic clipboard like rain on a window pane.

When the lady came by, Mom wore an immobile smile that creeped me out.

I would play the questions game by myself. I’d prop up two dolls and sat them facing each other at the low table in my room. I had a broken clock with loose handles that wouldn’t stay in place, which I placed in the middle of the table, next to a glass of water.

I coloured the lips of the one doll with a red crayon. I jaggedly cut the other doll’s long brown hair.

“What do you like best, an egg or a book?”

“Book.” I answered for the other doll.

I shook the clock so the hands wiggled.

“Of course you don’t like eggs,” I said, moving the doll with the red-smeared lips. “You don’t like any food.”

“I have in-die-jest-chin.”

“Why don’t you have some water?” I pressed the glass to the doll’s hard mouth and the water trickled down the plastic chin and darkened the pink polyester dress.

One night that summer, I woke up itchy from mosquito bites and a bad dream. I barged into Mom’s bedroom and froze. She lay propped up against the wooden headboard. A thick cord tethered her belly button to a bulky cylinder on the nightstand. Her face was expressionless, her eyes unblinking.

I burst into hiccuppy tears.

“I didn’t mean to scare you, honey.” Her face morphed into a smile and she patted the mattress. “Come here, I want to tell you something.”

She stroked my tangled curls and I shook with sobs as she explained how my birth parents had passed away when I was a baby, and how she wasn’t like me, or Betty, or Betty’s mom. She wasn’t human. She was created by a company that produced social robots: companions for the elderly, nannies, teachers. My mom, Norma1, was programmed to be a parent, and had been one of the first models to take part in the android adoption government programme.

She told me there were other little girls and boys like me, all over the country, who had a mommy exactly like her.

One time, in a theme park, I had grabbed the hand of another Norma1. I was mortified, gaping back and forth at the two identically tall figures with the same short, brown bob, the same smooth, symmetrical features. My mother and the other android nodded in acknowledgment.

“That must have been a bit frightening, huh?” Mom said.

She would do that a lot, identify my feelings. To confirm that she had rightly interpreted them? To validate me?

“Why does she look like you?”

“She’s one of my sisters.”

I never knew I had an aunt. “How many sisters do you have?”

“Oh…three hundred seventy-five,” she said, and tickled me.

I tittered. I thought she was joking.

By the end of summer, Betty could go in the deep end. She’d gone on holiday, stayed in a cabin by a lake, and found an owl pellet under a pine tree, and roasted marshmallows above a campfire, and her dad had taught her how to swim!

I sat on the porch and sucked on a slice of watermelon, the juice creeping down my arms. Fat flies buzzed. Mom peeled potatoes without lifting the knife, cutting long spiral ribbons of potato skin.

“I need swimming lessons.”

“What you need is a napkin,” she said.

I pulled on the hem of her dress and wailed. Betty knew how to swim. I wanted to learn too. It wasn’t fair that she didn’t want me to swim because she wasn’t human and hated water. People needed to learn how to swim.

“Alright,” Mom said, unsmiling.

Every Saturday morning, my mom accompanied me to the swimming pool. On the bus, people stared at her. I would stick out my tongue when people muttered ‘Anny’. The way they said it, I knew it was a bad word.

Other times, men would approach Mom, the way Hazel’s dad had done on the playground. He had coughed and asked Mom out to dinner, ignoring me as I yanked her rigid hand. She’d smiled and thanked him kindly and said no, she wasn’t made for that. After that, he stopped greeting my mom or smiling at her. And when it was Hazel’s birthday, I wasn’t invited to her party.

It’s not so easy to clock an android these days, but the skin, even with the designed imperfections, looked too even and stiff back then. The flatness of her eyes also was a tell, so Mom often wore big movie-star sunglasses.

Since she’d told me she wasn’t my real mother, wasn’t real in any sense, I sat a few seats away from her on the bus. When we reached our stop, I slapped her hand away when she tried to help me descend the steep step.

I strode ahead of her, pretended not to hear her when she called my name.

The indoor swimming pool had a café on the third story. Parents would sit up there, drink coffee, and overlook their kids practising their breaststrokes. I could make out the shadowy shape of my mom behind the wall of glass. She sat very straight. Her shiny blouse-buttons caught the light at times, guiding me like a beacon.

My swimming teacher was bald and brawny, and always barked at me to “Kick! Kick!”. His back was turned to me, and he was talking to a woman in an orange swimsuit, who kept smiling and nodding at him, her blonde ponytail flailing.

It was my first time in the big pool and I was kicking my way towards the deeper blue. As soon as I had started my lessons, I learned that I hated swimming. I struggled to keep my head above water, to move my lead frog legs in time. Afterwards, I would be so tired that I’d fall asleep on the bus and Mom had to carry me home. I’d wake up groggy and grumpy on the couch hours later, too stubborn to admit I regretted begging for swimming lessons.

I thought of Betty, laughing, weightless, carried by the water and her father’s arms and I’d get so mad. Why couldn’t I have a normal mother? Or a father. I dipped, and discovered I could no longer reach the bottom standing on my tippy-toes. I gulped chlorine-water. A wild terror washed over me and I went under again. The echoing splashes and voices drowned out my gurgly screams, my thrashing. The water wrapped around my head and my chest, tightening its grip on me with every gasp—like a corn snake crushing a mouse. I was seeing prickly stars.

Strong hands hooked under my arms and lifted me up to the light. I spluttered and coughed. My swimming teacher shouted something at me I couldn’t hear as he dragged me out of the water. My mom stood next to the pool. Tiny shards of glass glittered in her hair and blue wires spilled out of the crack in her right leg. I looked over her shoulder, at the window she had jumped through to tell my teacher her daughter was drowning, to yell at him to save me.

I pressed my wet face against her hard chest, choking on salt and bleach, soaking her shirt. For once, she didn’t wince.

Sciascia DeKay is a Dutch speculative fiction writer living in Belgium. Her work has previously appeared in Martian.

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