1st Leap Year
“Happy 10th birthday, Alton,” Aloise Sputnitter said as she sat at Alton’s kitchen table. “It must be fun to be born on Leap Year.”
Aloise was an old woman who wore her wrinkles proudly, as a sign of survival from life’s disappointments. As Alton’s mother, she’d had many. Like many mothers, she never thought that she’d give birth to a loser. It just sort of happened along the way.
“Yeah, fun,” Alton said. “Most kids’ parents still give gifts in the other years, Ma.”
Alton wasn’t the sprightliest forty-year-old in the world. His ever-expanding waistline and ever-diminishing hairline spoke firmly of his midlife status. The ThunderCats t-shirt he managed to find in XXL and insisted on wearing daily, however, did not.
“Free rent was your gift,” Alton’s dad Weston said.
He was an old man who wore his wrinkles, and life’s disappointments, far less gracefully than his wife. He had worked on the android testing lines for years and took pride in his work. He couldn’t, however, take pride in Alton.
“Well, are you just going to stare stupidly or are you going to open the box?” Weston added.
“Weston,” Aloise said. “Be patient.”
“We’ll be at his next birthday before he makes a move,” Weston said. “Just so you know, forty’s the cutoff.”
“Excuse me?” Dalton asked.
“What is there to celebrate after this? Your life’s just one downhill ride, so no more birthdays,” Weston said. “Now hurry up and open your gift so we can go home.”
Alton reached towards the giant box that reminded him, in its sheer scale, of the Let’s Make a Deal reruns he saw from nearly fifty years ago. He needn’t have made the effort, though. Out of the box, pummeling it actually, came the “big” gift of his fortieth birthday: Valoria Model S. Her eyes, bluish in their opaque light, took in Alton like a baby taking in its mother. Alton just kept staring, stunned.
“Is this a perverse joke?” he asked.
The tiny hairs on his balding head stood up in trepidation.
“You don’t like it?” Aloise asked.
“I’m Valoria,” the robotess said in an annoyingly perky tone. “I will be your life’s companion.”
“Not you,” Alton said. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
“That’s no way to talk to your new wife,” Weston said.
“She comes with a marriage certificate and everything,” Weston added. “You’re already married, and you didn’t even have to attend your own wedding.”
“This is not happening,” Alton said. He searched for some semblance of reason in his mother’s sad, brown eyes. He found none.
“Let’s face it, dear,” Aloise said. She sighed, trying not to break down as she added: “You’re my son and I love you, but the last girl you tried to kiss ran away and took out a restraining order. I told myself, as ten years, then fifteen years passed, that you’d find love, or that it would find you, in the form of a large and unparticular woman, but it never did. Your father and I are going to die one day, thank God, and before I go on to eternal peace without your father I’d like to know that you have someone or something looking after you. Valoria is, well, something.”
“It is my job to make you happy,” Valoria added, as perky as ever.
She batted her eyes like a little Betty Boop doll and looked not unlike the iconic figure too.
“This is embarrassing,” Alton said. “Couldn’t you just have gotten me a dog?”
With that, Weston and Aloise rose and sighed.
“Sorry if we disappointed you on your fortieth birthday,” Weston said, hobbling away with his wife, “but just think of how disappointed we’ll be if we live to see your fiftieth. This robot’s for your own good, Son. You’ll see we’re right after you gain another twenty pounds and lose the rest of your hair.”
2nd Leap Year
Before long, the neighbors grew accustomed to the sight of a forced smile and a revolving torso on top of the lawn mower. It wasn’t the robot they found strange. It was its owner. Since the age of twenty, Alton held a job no one in their mid-forties considered a job: a video game designer. He worked remotely via computer and spent more time typing emails than speaking actual words. His neighbors would’ve had to go back years to remember the last time they saw Alton standing in direct sunlight.
“Dear,” Valoria said as Alton typed away at the keys. “I’m afraid I have some bad news to share.”
“Yes?” Alton asked, still typing away at a new design.
“It’s your father. He passed away this morning of a massive heart attack,” Valoria said.
Alton turned to look at Valoria. The awkward smile she always had was still there, as if her neural pathways had not yet adjusted in light of the news.
“How’d it happen?” Alton asked.
“He was hollering at your mother to get off the john, insisting he had to go worse than her, and the stress of that injustice was just too much.”
Alton could tell that Valoria was simply summarizing what she had been told; unfortunately for Alton, her “good manners” protocols had never fully formed.
“I’ll call my mom,” Alton said.
“She said that wouldn’t be necessary,” Valoria added.
“Wouldn’t be necessary?”
“Yes. The funeral is private,” Valoria said.
“But I’m his son. Are you telling me I’m not invited to my own father’s funeral?”
“What the—? Did my mother say why?”
Valoria’s eyes flitted as she said, “Your mother never told her friends about you. They’re under the impression that your older brother, the bank manager out West, is her only son.”
“To hell with her. I didn’t want to go to the funeral anyway.”
“Why would I? It’s just another sad reminder of the man I don’t want to become but will become, someday.”
“You can change that, Alton.”
Alton pecked at the keys, still working on Masters of Asteroids 6, but Valoria would not go away.
“Can I help you?” Alton asked.
“Today’s your birthday. It’s also our first real anniversary,” Valoria said.
“Congratulations,” Alton said, still typing away.
Valoria plugged her hand into the USB port and overloaded the computer.
“Valoria,” Alton screamed. “That’s six months of work!”
“And it’s saved—in my finger. Right now, we’re going to go out and celebrate our anniversary and your birthday.”
Alton blinked. “What?”
“For four long years, I’ve done whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. Now you’re going to do what I say. That’s how a marriage is supposed to work.”
“Excuse me? My father just died.”
“I want to dance on my anniversary. If you don’t dance, you’ll be the next dead body. Get your coat. We’re going.”
Perhaps out of love, perhaps out of marital obligation, perhaps because Valoria was in reality a one-ton machine that could pulverize him, Alton did as commanded.
Soon enough, Valoria carried Alton to the dance floor, which was no easy task. Valoria guided Alton’s feet and his massive hips until he ran from the floor—or, rather, walked as briskly as his excess bulk would allow.
Valoria found Alton in the men’s bathroom—her programming still had unresolved bugs when it came to respecting boundaries. She kicked open the stall and put her arms around the shrinking violet of a man sitting in tears on the toilet.
“The toilet—it just brings it all back,” Alton said in a whimper.
“There, there,” Valoria said in consolation. She held Alton, and he held her back.
“Why couldn’t he have just been a good father? Why did he have to mess me up so much?”
“That’s what fathers do,” Valoria responded.
“I haven’t seen him in years, and I’m going to miss the oaf. Can you believe that?” Alton asked between hulking sobs.
The two remained holding each other—the first physical contact they had had in years.
Third Leap Year
Alton waved to the neighbors as he completed his morning jog. His semi-tanned skin and considerably smaller stomach hardly testified to the Alton of old. The neighbors’ reaction also spoke of change: they did, in fact, wave back. And smile too. This was as close to normal as Alton had ever known. And it was all thanks to Valoria the combination wife / lawn mower.
As he came in, Alton noticed that the flowers he ordered for his wife for their anniversary had arrived, along with some upgrades she had been nagging him about for a while.
Valoria kissed him. “I want something special for this anniversary,” she said, “something that will be as much your birthday gift as it is my anniversary present.”
“I want a child.”
“That’s your response?” Valoria asked. “That’s all you have to say?”
Alton backtracked—and fast. “What I meant was that this is so sudden. Maybe we should take some time and think this over.” He gulped.
“I’ve already ordered a small Model C boy,” Valoria said. “In fact, he’s getting dropped off today.”
“I figured your design work is doing well. How many titles have we worked on in the last year? Fifty? We have the money, and we have the space.”
“Yes, but shouldn’t you have talked to me first?”
“What for? I just forged your name on the certificate.”
With that, the bell rang, and Valoria raced over to fling open the door. The door just cursed at her and opened itself. There on the steps, with the same curious blue eyes as his new mother, stood the Model C. He was a diminutive machine approximating a pale boy of six with black bangs, freckles, and a slight stoop.
“My name is Alton, Jr.” the android said, looking straight at Alton and Valoria.
“Tell me,” Alton, Sr. asked. “Do you like video games?”
“I’ve mastered 1,200,456 of them,” the boy replied.
“That’s all? We’ll get you up to speed in no time.”
Fourth Leap Year
Alton, Sr. and Jr. made it to the top of Mt. Kesley first, and the view was breathtaking—it was the only spot in the world that Alton, Sr. knew of where he felt like he was actually looking down on the sun.
But there was one problem with the picture: Valoria wasn’t in it. She climbed up far too slowly for an android of her design. Alton, Sr. had taken her to any number of engineers, but none of them could find much they could do to fix the problem.
“Do you want help?” Alton, Sr. asked. “You should see this view.”
“I just want to take in the two of you enjoying it,” Valoria said, sitting on a boulder. “Besides, I’ve seen this view before.”
Alton, Sr. whipped his head around. “This is the first summer we’ve gone hiking.”
“Maybe you and Alton, Jr. can come here and find a rock to sit on,” Valoria said.
Valoria reached out and took Alton, Jr.’s hand too.
“My mechanical mainframe is flawed. Some kind of virus they can’t quite get rid of,” Valoria said. She paused, her face slightly crooked, before straightening herself and saying, “I have maybe a week before my system crashes completely.”
“We can just switch the mainframe,” Alton, Sr. insisted. “Your personality is backed up in the company database, right?”
“It was. But this is a company-wide disaster. Any machine made between ten and twenty years ago is infected,” Valoria said. “Who knew? The virus was like a cancer. It lay dormant for years until it mutated and came to life.”
Alton, Jr.’s face scrunched up in the approximation of worry. Alton, Sr. just said, “This can’t be. I’m supposed to die first. I’m the one with the bad genes, not you. I mean, you’ve seen my parents! You’re the one who’s supposed to live forever!”
“Life is what it is,” Valoria said. “Nothing is certain.”
“But…but who’s going to take care of me and little Alton?”
Valoria smiled. “I’d like to think that I taught you how to be a better man and prepared you to be a better father.”
“You did,” Alton, Sr. said. “But I’m a work in progress. Believe me!”
“I know you’ll do fine. I know you had bigger dreams for the future. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”
“Disappointed? Before you came into my life, all I ever wanted was for the lawn to be mowed so that I wouldn’t have to go outside. After you came into my life, all I ever wanted was a spectacularly unspectacular life, the life of a husband and of a father. Along with getting the lawn mowed. You gave that to me, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the video games in the world.”
“Well, not for most of them, anyway.”
Valoria smiled her awkward mechanical smile, the one Alton, Sr. came to love.
“I’ve chosen this spot,” Valoria said. “This is where I want to shut down…on my own terms.”
“Now? Today?” Alton, Sr. asked.
“Would it be any easier tomorrow?”
Alton, Sr. shook his head.
“Maybe it’s forever,” Valoria said. “Maybe it’s just until next time. Life is nothing if not a mystery. Live your life, Alton. Don’t be afraid of who you are. You’re beautiful. In a different way.”
Alton, Sr. touched Alton, Jr. gently on the shoulder.
“Tell your mom you love her,” Alton, Sr. said.
“Love?” Alton, Jr. asked.
“Just do it.”
Alton, Jr. went up to his mother and whispered his goodbyes in her ear.
Valoria smiled as Alton, Sr. joined in the hug as well. The sun went down, and Valoria stared straight ahead until she became perfectly motionless.
Fifth Leap Year
“What’s his name again?” Aloise asked the attending droid.
The nursing home looked like any other home, except it was the only home Alton, Sr. had ever seen with far too many beds. Aloise laid in her bed watching holographic TV when the two Altons entered.
“Hi, Ma. Remember me?” Alton asked.
Aloise, now with more wrinkles than a saggy bag, sat looking lucidly ahead. “A woman never forgets her son, no matter how much she may sometimes wish to,” she said. “But you—you can’t be Alton. He must be all of two tons by now.”
“I am Alton, Sr. More importantly,” Alton, Sr., said, nodding for Alton, Jr. to step forward, “this is your grandson, Alton, Jr.”
Alton, Jr. was programmed to stand a little taller these days, but he still had the bangs and freckles that made him look almost human.
“He asked to see you as a birthday gift,” Alton, Sr. said. “I said yes because, whatever else you put me through—barring me from my own father’s funeral, refusing my calls—you gave me the best gift of my life. You gave me Alton’s mother. Without her, I never would have had Alton, Jr. I never would have had a family.”
“Step closer,” Aloise said to Alton, Jr. “How old are you?”
“In high school?”
Alton, Sr. laughed. “Alton, Jr. is working on his PhD.”
“Tell her, son.”
“Chemistry, Engineering, Spanish, Literature, History, Genetics…”
Alton, Sr. held up a hand. “It suffices to say he’s getting a PhD in everything his college has to offer until he decides what he wants to do with his life.”
“Wow,” Aloise said. “I never even graduated college. Then again, I’m not a machine.”
“Alton, Jr. prefers the term non-biological.“
“Where’s his mother?” Aloise asked.
Alton, Sr. smiled gently. “She passed away four years ago today.”
“What? I paid for a lifetime warranty on that piece of junk!”
Alton, Sr. placed his hand gently on his mother’s. “Relax, Ma,” he said. “She’s the gift that keeps on giving, as you can see from my son. Somehow, I think that warranty was honored.”
“So you came to love her?” Aloise asked, patting Alton, Sr.’s hand. “I didn’t know such a thing was possible in a marriage.”
“I suppose, against all odds, it is.”
“In an odd way, it was.”
A nurse droid popped in, stating: “Visiting hours are nearly over.”
Aloise’s wrinkles drooped, and her eyes lost their light. There was a picture of Elton, the banker son, and his family sitting on a small window ledge. Alton, Sr. couldn’t be sure, but judging from the lack of gifts and flowers, he’d guess that Elton hadn’t visited in at least a year.
“Is this a one-time visit or will you come back?” Aloise asked. Her voice trembled ever so slightly as she spoke.
“We’ll come back, but only if you don’t bar me from the next family funeral.”
“I won’t be able to. I’ll be the one in the casket.”
“You never know. Valoria taught me that.”
Aloise smiled. “She does sound remarkable for a robot. I’d like to hear about her.”
“I’ll tell you all about her someday. Right now, Alton, Jr. has to prepare for his first PhD examination.”
“Actually, I’ve been studying in my mind this whole time,” he said. “The female has said few facts I don’t already know.”
Alton, Sr. shook his head as he said, “Goodbye, Ma. Sorry. He has a long way to go yet.”
“So don’t we all.”
Alton, Sr. walked out with Alton, Jr. and said, “Son, part of being a man means learning when to tell the truth and when not to.”
“When should I not?”
“When a woman’s present, you might want to choose your words more carefully.”
“You have a lot to learn about women, Alton.”
“Will you teach me?”
Alton, Sr. laughed. “Me teach anyone about women?” He saw the earnest blue light of his son’s eyes. “Sure,” he said. “Stranger things have happened in this world. Why not?”
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