For my 88th birthday, I celebrate with a bottle of bourbon. I fumble with the anti-intoxication meds my doctor insists I take, the dispenser flying out of my hands and across the kitchen table. “Goddammit!”
Chrissy walks in, putting her hands on her hips in disapproval. Her face is her mother’s, but when I look for my eyes, all I see are the blank, grey eyes of an android. Not my daughter, only her avatar.
“Is it so hard to ask for help?” she snaps. The avatar has a faux personality—based on Chrissy’s—but the motherly tone in her voice tells me my daughter is sitting halfway around the world, jacked-in.
“I’m an old man,” I say, reaching for the bourbon. “Why bother?”
She walks over to the table, deftly dispenses a tablet, and pops it into my mouth. Sitting down in a chair beside me, she pushes two glasses my way.
“Do you at least have a glass of something where you are?” I ask, filling both glasses.
She chuckles. “It’s morning over here, Dad. You know that.”
“I know,” I say, washing the pill down with the bourbon. “I was just testing you.”
“Sure you were.” She follows my lead, downing the glass.
I fill them both again. “You know I’m just going to empty your stomach reservoir and drink it, right?”
“Do you have time to watch The Tonight Show?”
She groans. “No. I have to get to work, but my avatar will keep you company. I doubt you’ll even notice.”
I will. “Fine.”
We nurse our second glasses as the crickets chirp outside. Chrissy purses her lips, letting me know she has something to say. I raised her to be plainspoken, so I know it must be something particularly awkward. I know exactly what she will say.
“Why won’t you come here?” she finally asks.
“Ugh,” I say with a wave of my hand. “Now that would kill me.”
“Come on,” she says, putting a hand on my arm. The warmth and pressure feels just like Chrissy. “It’s been years since you last visited. Guangzhou has changed a lot. It’s clean, organized.”
“Guangzhou without all the pollution? It’s just not home if you’re not wheezing after a brisk walk.”
She laughs. “I miss that American sarcasm, too. Bring it with you. Besides, I could show you around the lab. You’d get a kick out of what we’ve done with the place.”
I moan. “I retired too early. I wouldn’t remember anything.”
“Yes you would,” she says. “At least send an avatar.”
“Are you kidding me? My old body can’t take that.” Creating a template for an avatar is like an MRI that takes four hours. Just the thought of it makes me weary.
She sighs. “If you don’t want to come here, I’ll just have to go there. After this phase of construction is complete, I’ll have some time.”
“No, no,” I say, getting angry. “This is huge for you. And the world. Don’t worry about me.”
“It’s not just you,” she says. “I could visit Michael, too. They just moved into their new house.”
“I know. I talk to my grandson, you know.”
Her face lights up. “Why don’t you go visit them? You’d love upstate New York this time of year.”
“No. I’m fine right here on the west coast. Still waiting for it to break off and drift into the Pacific.”
“Come on, dad,” she says with a push in her voice. “You can’t just rot there.”
“Don’t you have to get to work?”
“Christ. What’s the matter with you?” she chides.
I slam the glass down on the table. She goes silent, and so do I. We are too similar for our own good. After a short respite, she sighs. The avatar blinks and I know she’s gone.
“Would you like me to turn on your show?” it asks.
I grunt, moving to the living room. The bourbon comes with me.
Pulling myself up from where I had slept on the sofa, I stare down at the empty bottle on the coffee table.
“Aren’t you glad you took the pill?” the avatar asks. My heart skips a beat, but I notice its dead eyes are staring at the blank wall display. It turns to me, plastering a preprogrammed smile onto its face.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” I ask. The aroma of fresh ground coffee hits my nose and I feel a pang of guilt. “Isn’t Chrissy home yet?”
It shakes its head. “I don’t have her on GPS, which means she’s still at work.”
It’s strange talking to something that looks almost identical to Chrissy, but after a few months with the thing, I’ve grown accustomed to having something to talk to. The downside is that it makes me miss my daughter—the real one—all the more.
I stand up and get myself a cup of coffee. It follows me into the kitchen, handing me another mug. Rolling my eyes, I fill it up. The damned thing learned from the real Chrissy, who knows her mother and I shared a cup of coffee every morning for fifty-five years.
Shuffling out to the back patio, I enjoy the view. Children frolic on the beach below while a middle-aged couple walk a robotic dog along a footpath. “Keep it weird, Santa Cruz.” I used to walk Chrissy along the same beach. Her mother and I, that is. Have I taken Michael? Or his family?
As I take a sip of coffee, a thought occurs to me. “Avatar, get out here.” It does, and far more lithely than my sixty year-old daughter. “How much would a plane ticket be?”
It rolls its dead eyes at me, a perfect imitation of a five-year old Chrissy. “From where, then?”
“From Guangzhou,” I say. “And New York.”
It tells me, then says, “I doubt Michael could come, though, with work and the house.”
“You don’t get paid to talk,” I snap.
“I don’t get paid at all,” it says. “You know that.”
I round on it, looking it square in its empty eyes. “I don’t want to go there.”
“I’m an old man. Don’t I get to be stubborn for no reason?”
“I find it hard to believe this is a recent development,” it says.
I narrow my eyes at it. “Chrissy?” The resemblance is uncanny.
“She’s on her way home.”
It waves me on. “Out with it then.”
I’m tempted. “Will Chrissy know?”
“If she cares to review the files.”
I nod, taking another sip of coffee. “I don’t want go for a reason as old as time. I’m irrelevant. Last time I visited Chrissy, she was so busy with work. She tried, she really did, but she has a life. As I did when I was her age. Same goes with Michael.”
“Why don’t you tell her that?” it asks.
“You’re programmed to mimic her emotions. How do you think she’d feel?”
It simply nods.
“I tried learning some of the new engineering they’re using at the lab, but it’s changed so much in the last twenty years.” I turn away, staring out over the beach. “If I could just get them to come here, maybe things would be different. They’d have fun here.”
I spin around.
Chrissy’s blinking. “What were you saying about having fun?”
I look down to the coffee in my hand. “Back from work so soon?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I have to go back though, so they gave us a few hours for dinner.”
“We’ve been having some problems with the lab’s containment protocols. I don’t really want to talk about it.” Her mouth chews something not really there. “Hope you don’t mind. I’m hungry. So what’s this about fun?”
“I thought it’d be fun to take a walk,” I say.
I watch the Tonight Show in the dark, looking over to the time display every few minutes. The avatar sits beside me, knowing to keep its mouth shut during the monologue. When it cuts to break, I sigh. “Chrissy?”
“Nothing on GPS,” it says.
“Why wouldn’t she tell me if she had to work early?” I wonder aloud.
“She’s very busy, I’m sure she just forgot.” It’s a reminder I don’t need.
“Those tickets?” I let the words hang in the air. “Forget them.”
“She’s often late. Don’t you think you’re being juvenile?” I’m not sure if it’s channeling Chrissy or my late wife.
“It’s like you said, they just don’t have time.”
“Then go there, Goddammit.” It spits the words.
The show resumes, but I’m too angry. “You didn’t talk like that when you first showed up.”
“I learn every time you two talk.”
I curse, moving to the other sofa. “You’re not her. Remember that.”
“Then go see her.”
“I told you, I—”
It cuts me off. “I know, you’d only be in the way. But is it any worse than how your life is right now? The only time you’re ever happy is when Chrissy is jacked-in and you forget I’m an avatar.”
The words cut me. “So, what? I should just go and bother her when she’s busiest?”
“When she was a child, did you ever chide her for bothering you when you were busy with some project or another?”
“No,” I say. “I tried not to.”
“And neither will she. Go.”
I realize it’s right. “Fine. Book the ticket to Guang-”
“Wait,” it says, its eyes snapping toward the display. “Something’s happened.”
The display changes, suddenly covered in bright lights. I narrow my eyes and struggle to read the caption. “Tragedy strikes Guangzhou: Chemical Lab Explosion.”
I stare up at the display for a long time. The avatar moves to my sofa, slowly wrapping me with its arms. I realize I’m shaking. “What happened?”
“Reports coming in say there was a malfunction that caused a containment breach.” Its voice quavers, just like Chrissy’s did when she told me she was pregnant with Michael.
“Maybe…maybe she wasn’t there,” I say.
It squeezes me beneath its warm embrace and whispers. “I don’t have her on GPS.”
I look to it, its dead eyes dead forever. “Get the fuck away from me!” I push it off the sofa and it retreats into the kitchen. I hear it pacing back and forth.
Shaking, I watch the news story unfold. Sometime later, the avatar brings me a new bottle of bourbon. I snatch it away, clutching it to my chest. It sits down on the other sofa, and I can’t stand to look at it.
It speaks softly to me. “She went quickly. She never knew it was coming. There was no pain.” All the things I told Chrissy when her mother passed, it’s telling me now. Or whatever this machine is, it’s comforting me.
On our separate sofas, we cry.
As night turns to morning, the bourbon forces me to the bathroom. The avatar sits on the lip of the bathtub, rubbing my back. I can’t meet its eyes.
“Just go,” I say.
“Wherever you want,” I say. “Just go.”
It wrings it hands.
“Out with it,” I say, sensing a question.
“I can book a flight for you.”
I think about it and nod. “Fine.”
“There’s a six-hour sub-orbital leaving in two hours,” it says. “That’ll give you time to pack.”
“No,” I say, forcing myself to look. Its eyes are not Chrissy’s, but they’re not dead either. “Not to Guangzhou.”
“New York,” I say. “And make it for two.”
© 2017 by J.D. Carelli
Author’s Note: Living abroad, I’m always an ocean away from family and friends. This makes me wonder how future technologies might change our concept of what it means to be present in someone else’s life. When I saw the rich depths of emotion in that, “The Avatar in Us All” was born.
J.D. Carelli is an ESL teacher by day and a fantasy writer by night. The rest of the time he spends with his wife and daughter on a tropical island in Southern China. As a child, he fully believed that he could control the Force, and has been trying to reclaim that feeling on the page ever since. You can find out more about him at http://www.jdcarelli.com or on twitter @jdcarelli.