A warm orange glow pushed against the drab office curtains, slipping through the gaps and beaming onto the back of the sleeping man. He was lying face down on his desk, glasses askew on his brow and a crumpled letter still clenched in his hand. Slowly opening his eyes, the man sat up straight and looked up at the slowly oscillating ceiling fan. The sound of footsteps moving about downstairs brought him back to his senses. Pocketing the letter, he fixed his glasses and left the study.
“You finally up?” called the spritely voice of a young girl. As he made his way down the staircase, the tired man brought his wrist closer to his face, squinting to see how long he’d overslept.
“Ah, did I really fall asleep for that long? Shirli, I’m sorry.” He hurried down the stairs and stepped into the kitchen, where the smell of burnt toast hung in the air.
A young girl sat at the table, halfway done with a plate of blackened toast. Her sandy blonde hair was tied in two pigtails that fell softly over her shoulders. She smiled at the man, but it didn’t quite reach her cheeks.
“I made breakfast, but I burnt the toast sorry. I also didn’t know what you would want on yours, soooo it’s just burnt bread really.” She chuckled, her eyes turning towards the four-stack pile of toast opposite her.
The man shook his head and gave an awkward smile, sitting down in the empty seat. “I must have lost track of the hours last night when I was working. Haven’t you got to catch the bus in just a few minutes?”
Shirli nodded, crunching into her peanut-buttered toast. “Yup. I was just about to leave when I heard your door close.”
His eyes seemed distant from their conversation, staring past the girl and towards the front door. “Thanks for the breakfast. Coffee and burnt toast got me through most of college, you know.” he laughed dryly. “Now, go on, you’ve got a bus to catch, don’t you?” He gestured towards the front door.
She smiled brightly. “Okayyy,” her little voice droned on. “I’ll see you after school, Dad. Get some rest if you need it, you look like a panda.” She chuckled as her father patted down his face in some attempt to remove the dark circles that hung under his eyes.
You don’t need to worry about me, Shirli,” he spoke softly. “I’ll see you off, let’s get your bag.”
The two left their barely touched breakfast and made for the front door. A dusty white lab coat hung over a hatstand, appearing untouched for quite some time. Shirli grabbed her school bag and swung it over one shoulder. She opened the door and stepped out into the warm embrace of the morning sun.
“I’m sorry I overslept again today,” said the man, awkwardly sifting his fingers through his messy hair.
She didn’t turn to face him, simply waving her hand over her shoulder as she made her way down the driveway. “It’s okay, Dad. I understand,” she said plainly.
He felt his chest tighten a little.
“Shirli!” he called out to her, swallowing his doubts. “Someone very special is going to be here when you get home today, alright?” His eyes twinkled in the sunlight, a faint glimmer of hope sparking life into his deep brown eyes.
Watching her until she disappeared around the corner, the man let out a deep sigh. He closed the door on the morning sun and stepped back into the comfort of his home. Reaching into his pocket he revealed the crumpled letter and began to read once more.
I’ll be working late tonight, so take care of dinner for Shirli alright? No spaghetti on toast, I know the excuses you call dinner, Mister. And help her with her homework before bed if you have time. She loves to slack of when she knows I’m not around.
I’m sorry I haven’t been home much lately. Things are up in the air at the studio right now, but I can tell that soon they’re going to calm back down. I should be back on regular hours by the end of the month.
Hang in there for me, alright?
I love you,
His vision doubled as tears welled in his eyes. Drying them on his sleeve, Arthur dragged his feet towards a downwards staircase that led to the family’s basement. This basement however, had been entirely retrofitted into a hidden laboratory. The walls and ceiling had all been soundproofed, and the room was littered with monitors, cables, and paperwork. The crude smell of oil hung in the air as Arthur sat down in front of an open laptop and began tapping away on the keyboard.
The floor was a mess of cables that trailed across the floor like snakes, all slithering towards one central platform. On it lay the motionless husk of a steel machine, made in the likeness of a woman. Though where a human had soft skin and bright eyes, this machine contained only a cold steel exterior and empty, black eyes.
Arthur felt sweat beginning to bead on his brow. He landed on a bootup sequence menu for the machine, titled simple as ‘Her’. Multiple core processors were deep in the red, indicating a very low likelihood of a successful boot-up. He looked towards the machine; its lifeless form unable to stare back at him.
“Today is the day, Claire. I just know it.” Arthur closed his eyes, unable to watch as he clicked launch on the program. Motors began to whir and hum as power was slowly fed into the machine, cables sparking in disagreement. He bit his lower lip in nervous anticipation. In a matter of minutes, he would finally have his answer.
The basement door creaked open as a small figure crept down the stairs. Distracted by the sounds of his creation, Arthur did not notice Shirli until she was standing right behind him. She let her schoolbag fall from her shoulder, the lunchbox within banging against the concrete floor.
Arthur turned around in surprise, his eyes darting between Shirli and the machine. His mind was in overdrive, and he hadn’t the words to explain this all to her right now. Instead, he simply reached out his hand and hoped that she would take it.
“She will be exactly like Mum was, I’ve made sure of it. I’ve digitised all our memories together and uploaded them into here, see?” He motioned nervously towards one of the many monitor screens. But Shirli’s eyes were locked on the sparking machine in the centre of the room, deaf to the attempted reasoning of her father.
“I can’t let her go, Shirli. I just can’t say goodbye yet,” he choked.
Tears painted down the face of the young girl, now finally turning to face her father. She shook her head in objection. “I miss Mum every single night. I miss her stories about work, her food, her hugs, but most of all the sound of her voice,” she sniffled loudly. “I want to hear her say my name again more than anything, but you can’t just replace her like this!”
Arthur felt her words shoot straight through him. “Shirli, I could never replace her…” His voice trailed off into hesitation as he saw the pain on his daughter’s face.
“You are replacing her, Dad. That’s what this is.” She balled her fists and looked up at the sorry old man before her. “You’re always down here. I’ve seen this all before. I’ve seen you asleep at that desk, with Mum’s last letter in your hand. You aren’t even here anymore, Dad,” she said, doing her best to stop the tears. “It’s like you’re gone too.”
Arthur felt his mind race through so many different memories, and with them all kinds of emotions. In trying to fix his family, had he only pushed Shirli further away?
Before he could even conceive a response, the machine let loose a long jet of hot steam that filled the room, and the whirring fell quiet. With the creaking of metal joints and tight pistons, the machine sat upright, its pitch-black eyes flickering to white as it took its first look at the world it was brought into.
The two were awestruck, eyes fixed on the machine. Arthur stepped forward slowly, clasping his hands together in awe as he approached his creation.
“Claire?” he asked softly. “It’s me, Arthur.”
The machine blinked lifelessly, processing this new information. Its white eyes stared straight through Arthur, and he knew not where to look.
“Who am I?” It asked plainly.
Arthur felt his heart begin to sink. “You’re Claire, you’re m-my wife! And this is our daughter, Shirli, don’t you remember?”
The machine stared at the girl, humming almost in a rhythm. Though its steel exterior showed no signs of emotion, something seemed to click within the machine when it saw the young girl before her.
“Ah,” it replied, in a hauntingly familiar tone. “Shirli. You’ve grown up so fast.” It spoke in a motherly voice. Though synthetic, there was a feeling of tenderness behind its words, and a sense of longing within those solid white pixels.
The humming grew louder, losing any semblance of balance and devolving into an ear-piercing hiss. The machine began to convulse, rattling violently as it released pitch black smoke from its mouth and ears. After a few moments, it fell silent once more. A lifeless imitation of memories that once were.
Arthur fell to his knees, utterly dejected at the scene before him. “Three years,” he whispered. “I’ve wasted three years, haven’t I?” He stared at the smoking heap of metal he called salvation, thinking only of its last words.
A hand fell gently on his shoulder, and Arthur turned to see Shirli standing by his side. Her eyes were full, yet she did not weep. She simply stared on at the smoking wreckage.
“It was good to see her again, wasn’t it?” she said, and the two shared a moment of silence that felt like forever.
Arthur turned to face his daughter. The face that stared back at him was full of sadness, and yet still she gave a warm smile. In her eyes, Arthur could think only of the years he had missed with her. He felt himself return to reality at last, Claire’s final words echoing in his mind forevermore. He took Shirli by the hand and gave her the best smile he could manage.
‘You were right, Claire. She really has grown up so fast.’
Author: Jamin lives and breathes stories in their many forms. With a taste for tragedies, he enjoys spinning tales about everyday people and everyday life, but with an element of surrealism that separates them from our world. At the heart of all his writing is the idea that being human is a gift to be treasured. Though the world can be wrought with suffering and loss, it is still a wonderful world indeed.
Artist: Sarah McLachlan is a third year Bachelor of Creative Writing student who likes to draw in her spare time. She wishes to combine both her art and writing skills to create a webcomic of her own one day, but she’s also open to illustrating for books and book covers. Sarah is also a major The Legend of Zelda fan and can be found drawing a lot of elves. You can find her at @hideriame02 on Instagram.
Editors: Jasmine Tait and Eliana Fritz