On my long walk to the mailbox, I caught a glimpse of my neighbor Georgette. Her living room curtains were pinned back from her oversized window to reveal her blonde dipped hair and baby blue sundress.
Her head swiveled back and forth as she followed something on the ground (a dog? cat? rabbit?). She bent out of eyesight to pet it and popped up smiling.
I admired her transparence. After what had happened to her, I assumed she would draw the blinds, shroud herself in darkness, and deal with her grief alone.
Instead, she spent every morning dancing past the window with her broom in hand. Watching her routine became a habit of mine, something I did with my 6 AM coffee. It became my daily reminder that if she could survive the worst time of her life with a smile, I had nothing to complain about.
She rarely left the house, but at least once a week, she took short outings, coming back with squeak toys and pillow beds and bowls. Her pet must have worked as a replacement. A way to deal with the missing piece of her family.
During one evening walk to the mailbox, when she stepped outside to grab her newspaper, we caught each other’s gaze. Georgette on her pebbled driveway and me on my concrete one.
“How are you holding up?” I asked, crossing the street to invade her yard. “Are you doing okay?”
She looked confused, like she had nothing to be upset about. “Same as always. Nothing new. Hey, why don’t you come inside for coffee? I haven’t had company in ages.”
I had paperwork to finish in my home office, a spreadsheet my boss wanted completed by EOD, but my curiosity won out. I followed Georgette into the green paneled house, through the attached kitchen, and into the living room.
The fireplace, made of white stone, held photographs of Brian, her little boy. His urn sat in the center.
The rest of the room appeared average. A television mounted on the wall. A red leather couch. A corner designated for pet supplies with a rainbow of toys piled up high.
“Dog or cat?” I asked, eyes searching for the answer.
“Neither. Just Brian.”
I thought I heard her wrong. Then I followed her hand, which was motioning toward the floor. Toward a Roomba, one of those little vacuum robots, spiraling across the room, looking for something to gobble.
“Do you want to pet him?” she asked. She bent down to pick it up and cradled it in her arms like a football. No. Like a baby.
I shook my head, she dropped the robot, and the conversation continued as normal. We spoke about my advertising work. Her favorite soap operas. The color she planned on repainting the walls. She seemed completely normal. No psychotic break in sight.
When she ducked into the bathroom, I tapped my questions into Google. According to the first few websites that appeared, it was common for humans to get emotionally attached to robots. They started by giving out nicknames, which created the illusion of sentience.
When it came to Roombas, some studies found that people cleaned up before the machine had the chance so it didn’t have to work as hard. So its stomach remained empty. I wondered if that explained Georgette’s broom. Why she cleaned so diligently each day.
When she returned from the bathroom, wiping her hands across her jeans, she stopped mid-step. She was looking at the Roomba, repeatedly bumping into the radiator.
“Sorry,” she said. “He must be hungry by now. I didn’t feed him yet today.”
I said nothing. Just stared in awe while she snatched the bowl from the floor. I expected her to disappear into the kitchen to dump a chunk of dog food or cat food or, hell, even baby food.
Instead, she strolled over to her fireplace. Uncapped the urn. Dipped her hand into the ashes.
She sprinkled the flakes into the bowl and then overturned the bowl so the Roomba could reach them.
It gobbled up the pieces of her little boy. It held her little boy inside its stomach.
I slid my eyes toward Georgette, saw her satisfied smile, and realized, with each feeding, she was helping the robot transform into the child she had lost.