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When the Leaves Turn Red

By Kerri Zuiker

“Daniel, come inside!” Emily called from the kitchen doorway, looking out into the backyard dotted with trees. The leaves were just beginning to change color, tiny splashes of yellow, orange, and red against the green of the fading summer. She had always loved this time of year, when the weather started to cool and she made hot chocolate in the evenings.

“Okay, Mommy!” the young boy called back, tumbling off of a swing set and racing on short legs up to the house. He reached the door and grinned up at her, his freckled face red from running around the yard.

“It’s time for lunch,” she said, guiding him inside with one hand on his back as she closed the door with the other. “Go sit in your chair, please.”

“Yes, Mommy,” he answered, dashing around the kitchen island to get to his chair at the dining table. His reddish blond hair stuck up at odd angles, windswept and messy. Kicking his legs back and forth in his chair like any five-year-old boy would do, he waited patiently for his food, keeping up a steady stream of chatter. “You know what, Mommy? I found a leaf outside and it was this big and I can swing really high now and after lunch I want to draw pictures with my new crayons. Please?”

“Sure, honey. But we have to go to the store first,” Emily replied, carrying over a bright blue plastic bowl full of macaroni and cheese. She placed it on the table in front of him, and he smiled up at her in appreciation.

“Thank you,” he said automatically before he dug into the food.

“After you finish lunch, we need to go buy some more new clothes for you, alright?” Emily said to him, taking the empty pot from the stove and washing it in the sink.

Daniel swallowed the bite he had just taken and said proudly, “Because I’ve grown! Right?”

“That’s right. You’ve gotten taller. You need clothes that fit you, little guy,” she explained. Leaning back against the countertop, she watched him as he finished his lunch. He looked different, and just a little bit less like the three-year-old he used to be. His legs were a little longer, his face was less chubby. She was still trying to adjust to the sudden change; it was always unnerving for the first few days.

He looked up at her and smiled, and all of a sudden, he was her little boy again, the same as he’d always been.

* * *

Daniel was not, in fact, a real boy. He looked like one, he walked and talked and ate like one. But inside, he was full of wires and gears and circuitry, running on a rechargeable battery that lasted for years at a time. Daniel was a PC, a PseudoChild, made exactly to the parent’s specifications and a perfect alternative for those who could not conceive a child of their own. Still, he was almost completely like any normal child, except that he didn’t grow and couldn’t get sick, at least not with any biological viruses.

Being made of metal parts and synthetic skin, Daniel’s body could not actually change. Every few years, Emily would take him to be upgraded. Daniel would be gone for a few days, and when he returned, he was taller, and each time he looked just a little bit less like the boy he used to be. People would remark on how much he’d grown, and Daniel would grin proudly, content with the belief that he was a real boy.

He never heard the remarks that were muttered behind his back. He didn’t see the way the neighbors looked at Emily sometimes, or the whispers they exchanged about how selfish she was, to have that boy instead of adopting an orphaned baby. He remained in his isolated little world, protected from the cruelty of those who didn’t approve of Emily’s choice. He went to a small school nearby, one specially designed for other children like him. Many parents of genuine children didn’t want their sons and daughters in school with PCs, so the school system had set aside a separate space for these artificial children. Separated as he was from most real children, he remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that he was different from the others, content to go to school and play with his friends and be tucked in by his mommy at bedtime.

* * *

Not too long after Daniel had gotten his five-year-old body, a new woman moved into the empty house down the street. Her name was Mrs. Stafford, and she was the type of person that found out everything she wanted to know through gossiping with her neighbors. She enjoyed taking walks around the neighborhood, stopping to chat with whoever she happened to see.

On a warm afternoon, Daniel was out in the front yard, drawing with sidewalk chalk all over the driveway when Mrs. Stafford walked past. She had yet to meet the little boy, so she stopped and called in a cheery voice, “Hello!”

Daniel looked up from his drawing, a big piece of white chalk in his hand, ready to color in the clouds he’d just drawn. “Hello,” he responded, flashing her a smile.

“My name is Mrs. Stafford. I’m your new neighbor. Are you Daniel?” She walked up the driveway to crouch down next to him.

“Yes,” he said, always happy to meet someone new.

“So you’re the little electric child I’ve heard about,” she murmured through her polite smile.

“No, I’m a boy.” A look of confusion spread over Daniel’s face. He hated when grown-ups talked about things that he didn’t understand.

“Of course you are, dear. Of course you are.” Mrs. Stafford’s words were laced with sarcasm, but the little boy in front of her couldn’t understand that.

The momentary confusion faded from Daniel’s face and he smiled brightly at her again. “Do you like to draw?” he asked, offering her a piece of chalk.

“Not right now, sweetie,” she responded, standing up again. “Where’s your mommy?”

“She’s digging for flowers.” Daniel pointed over in the direction of the side of the house and went back to his drawing.

Mrs. Stafford looked in the direction he’d indicated, and sure enough, there was Emily Addison, on her knees in front of an empty flower bed, with a small pile of tulip bulbs ready to be planted next to her. She proceeded up the driveway, ready to introduce herself to the woman with the robot child.

“Hello!” Mrs. Stafford said cheerfully.

Emily looked up from her gardening, startled. Taking off her gloves and standing up, she responded in a guarded, cautious tone, “Hello…”

“My name is Isabelle Stafford. I’m your new neighbor.” She pointed three houses down to the single story home on the corner. “I live just down there.”

“Emily Addison. Nice to meet you,” Emily said, relaxing and extending a hand to shake.

Mrs. Stafford smiled back at her, and said, “Is Daniel your only…child?”

Emily noticed the pause in her words, the subtle hint of sarcasm in her voice. No stranger to ridicule about her decision to have Daniel, Emily chose to ignore the tone and replied, “Yes, he’s my only son. He’s five years old.”

“He seems like a wonderful little boy,” Mrs. Stafford continued, her eyes drawn back to where Daniel was still creating masterpieces on the driveway with his chalk. “They’re such fascinating things…” she murmured.

The polite smile left Emily’s face, replaced by a look of carefully-controlled anger. “My son is not a thing.” She stared into Mrs. Stafford’s eyes as the older woman turned back to face her, a fierce protectiveness in her posture.

Mrs. Stafford returned Emily’s harsh gaze with another smile, but this time her eyes were a little less friendly. “Of course, dear. I didn’t mean to insult you.” She paused for a moment before she said, as if they were just two people enjoying a friendly chat, “Well, I have to get home. It was nice to meet you, Emily.”

Emily said nothing, still staring coldly at the woman, and watched her walk back down the driveway, past Daniel, who looked up and smiled at her. Emily watched her until she was two houses away, before she walked down the driveway herself, joining Daniel with an almost too-happy grin. “Hey, little guy. What’re you drawing?” She flopped down on the ground next to him, grabbing another piece of chalk from the bucket nearby.

She spent the rest of the day trying to forget her encounter with Mrs. Stafford, doing her best to put the walls back up around herself and her son.

* * *

Time passed and the other children in the neighborhood grew. Daniel stayed in his five-year-old body for another few years, though Emily had parties for his sixth and seventh birthdays, marking the milestone with cake and presents and family get-togethers. Upgrading was an expensive process after all, and couldn’t be done every year.

He went from kindergarten, playing on the swing set and learning his alphabet, to second grade, addition and subtraction and reading chapter books. PCs learned at the same rate as real children, because parents didn’t want children who acted like walking encyclopedias.

Two autumns came and went, different leaves falling from the same trees, and Daniel kept learning. At the start of December, just as snow flurries were beginning to fall, Daniel got his seven year old body. The air got colder, the snow fell, and soon the week before Christmas had arrived. Emily’s brother Tom and his wife Chelsea came to visit with their son Jake for the holidays. Jake was around Daniel’s age, and both boys got along well, even though Jake was a living, breathing human and Daniel was not.

On a snowy afternoon a few days before Christmas, everyone was gathered in the living room after having spent the morning playing outside in the snow. The adults were seated around the kitchen table, talking and catching up on all of the family news they had to share with each other. The boys, not yet out of energy, were jumping around the living room furniture in an epic pretend sword fight, a forgotten movie playing on the TV nearby.

As the boys grew progressively louder, and the adults found it harder to hear each other speak, Emily called over to them, "Hey, guys, can you be a little bit quieter, please? We can't talk with you shouting so loudly."

Daniel immediately stopped screaming, always obedient. Jake was more stunned by Daniel's sudden silence than his aunt Emily's scolding, and grew quiet himself. The boys bounced down onto the couch, sitting next to each other as they started to watch the movie again.

The silence lasted about thirty seconds before Jake became restless again. "Daniel," he whispered. "Hey, Daniel." He poked the other boy in the ribs, giggling quietly.

Daniel kept his mouth shut as Jake continued to poke him, but finally, he couldn't take it anymore. Jake started to tickle him, and Daniel let out a short laugh of his own. As soon as the noise escaped his lips, his eyes immediately widened and filled with tears, and he let out a sob before putting his hands over his mouth, trying to stifle any further noise.

"Daniel, honey, what's wrong?" Emily said and got up from the kitchen table to join him in the living room.

Daniel was just sitting there, unmoving, on the couch, with his hands over his mouth.

"Come on, you can tell me," Emily coaxed, reaching out and putting a hand on his shoulder.

In a wobbly voice, like he was trying not to break down, Daniel moaned, "I wasn't quiet!"

"Oh, sweetie, it's okay. It doesn't matter." She rubbed his shoulder reassuringly.

"But you said!" Daniel insisted, unable to understand why she was changing her mind.

"It's alright, Daniel. It's okay if you made noise. I just didn't want you to shout."

"No, Mommy, I wasn't quiet!" Tears were running down Daniel's cheeks now, and Emily brushed them away with her thumb, holding his face gently in her hands. She kept trying to reassure him that it was alright.

"It's fine, Daniel," she said. "You can make a little bit of noise."

"I don't understand, Mommy," Daniel pleaded in a desperate voice. His breathing was quickening and he was beginning to twitch almost imperceptibly, a sure sign that somewhere inside him, something in his processing was glitching. It happened sometimes with his model, when he couldn’t process contradictions. "I wasn't quiet. You said be quiet. I don't understand."

Emily knelt down in front of the sofa and put her arms around Daniel, bringing him close to her. "Come here, give me a hug," she murmured.

Daniel rushed forward into her embrace, and she gently reached a hand under his T-shirt and pressed a tiny button in the middle of his back with one fingernail. Daniel froze in her arms and she pulled away, staring at his young face. He blinked once, seemed to reset himself and then smiled happily at her. "Hi, Mommy," he said, as if nothing was wrong, as if nothing had just happened.

"Hi, Daniel," she answered with a smile of her own, playing along.

He looked at her for another moment before he noticed the TV still playing in the corner of the room. “Mommy, I want to watch the movie,” he said, pulling out of her arms and hopping back up onto the couch next to Jake.

The whole room was quieter now, but Daniel didn’t seem to notice. Jake watched him apprehensively for a few moments, confused by Daniel’s sudden change in behavior, but was soon pulled back into the action of the movie and seemed to shrug off his cousin’s odd reaction.

Emily returned to the table and sat back down with Tom and Chelsea, their conversation momentarily halted as they stumbled through the awkward moment. Chelsea eventually brought up Christmas dinner plans, and their talk resumed, but the room seemed slightly less comfortable now, everyone skirting around the scene they’d just witnessed. The perfect image had been shattered, reminding everyone of the fact that Daniel was different, that they were not just the same as everyone else.

* * *

The Christmas holiday came and went, and Daniel went back to school. The weekend after Christmas break, Daniel’s PC friend Charlie was going to come over to play. The boys had been looking forward to it all week, planning the giant castle they would build out of Daniel’s Legos, and the epic battles that would take place with the tiny plastic men.

On the morning Charlie was supposed to come over, his mother called. Charlie had fallen the night before and damaged his leg. She would have to take him be repaired and have his short-term memory wiped to remove the incident from his memory. Once she hung up the phone, Emily walked down the hall to tell Daniel of the news.

“Hey, Daniel?” Emily said, coming into her son’s room. Daniel was sprawled out on the floor, surrounded by pictures drawn in bright crayon colors.

“Yeah, Mommy?” Daniel said, his head snapping up to look at her.

“I just talked to Charlie’s mom on the phone, and she said that he can’t come over today,” she explained. “Maybe another time, but not today.”

She had expected him to be upset, disappointed, anything, but instead he just looked back down at his drawings, said, “Oh. That’s okay.”, and continued coloring in the picture of their house.

Emily was a little taken aback by this reaction. Charlie was his best friend. He’d been looking forward to this day. “You’re—you’re not upset or anything?”

“No, Mommy,” Daniel replied, still working on his drawing.

“Daniel, it’s okay to be upset, you know,” Emily said in a reassuring tone, crouching down next to him. “It’s okay to be angry that Charlie can’t come over.”

“But I’m not,” Daniel said. He picked up a green crayon, scribbling across the bottom of the drawing to fill in the blank yard.

This wasn’t right. Why did he not care? “Daniel, please, just be upset,” Emily insisted, knowing it was a crazy request.

He didn’t understand. Mommies sometimes got upset, he understood that, but how could he? He was a little boy, little boys didn’t get upset. His programming subconsciously kicked in, switching topics in an effort to please. “Mommy, look at all the pictures I drew.” He held up the half-finished picture of their house, grinning proudly.

“No, Daniel,” Emily said, almost pleading now. “Listen to me. You can get angry, okay?”

He still didn’t understand what she was talking about. He got up and walked over to his backpack, which was lying in the corner of the room in a messy heap. “Mommy, do you want to see the story I wrote in school?” he asked.

No,” Emily insisted, her voice getting louder.

She was yelling. Mommies yelled when they were angry, or scared. Maybe he had done something wrong. “I’m sorry, Mommy,” Daniel offered, trying to make her feel better. He walked across the room to give her a hug, trying to make up for whatever he must have done wrong.

Instead of hugging him back, Emily grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, tears forming in her eyes. “Don’t you understand?” she cried. “I want you to be mad! That’s what normal people do. Someone lets you down, and you get upset about it. Just be angry, Daniel, like a real person. Be angry, dammit!”

He looked back at her, eyes wide in fear and confusion. “Mommy…” he pleaded, and in that moment he looked so real that she was horrified at what she’d just done.

She fell back to the carpeted floor in a heap, suddenly drained of all her anger and frustration. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry…”

Daniel just stood there, blinking slowly and watching her. Emily quickly wiped the tears from her eyes, composing herself just long enough to reach forward and press the tiny button in the middle of his back.

He blinked again and smiled, in that familiar motion as his memory was wiped of the past five minutes. “Hi, Mommy,” he said, just as he always did.

Emily stood up hurriedly, avoiding his gaze. “Hi, Daniel,” she responded, trying to keep her voice even. She pointed to the pictures that were still scattered all over the floor and said, “Why don’t you work on your drawings?”

“Okay,” he agreed, and lay back down on the floor as she rushed out of the room.

* * *

Later that night, after Daniel had gone to bed, Emily found herself digging through her closet, sorting through boxes of untouched memories until she found the right one. She took the small box over to her dresser, on top of which stood a small flat-screen television. She opened the box and rifled through it until she found the carefully labeled DVD nestled amongst an assortment of photographs and old newspaper articles. Popping the disc into the slot on the side of the TV, she pushed the play button and crawled back onto her bed, hugging one of her many pillows close to her body.

The screen lit up and the image of a snowy backyard appeared, the trees heavy with icicles and a child’s playground covered in soft, untouched drifts of snow.

She heard her own voice speaking as a man and a young girl came onscreen, both bundled up in thick jackets, hats, and gloves. “Tony, be careful,” the Emily behind the camera said. “Don’t let her fall.”

“She’s fine, Em. Don’t worry about it,” the man assured her, smiling back at the camera as he held the little girl’s hand, guiding her up the gentle slope of the backyard and pulling a bright pink sled behind him. He positioned the sled on the ground, keeping it steady with one foot, and said, “Ready, Gracie?”

“Yeah!” the toddler shouted, jumping up and down excitedly and leaving messy footprints in the pristine snow.

“Okay,” Tony replied, placing his hands under her arms to lift her onto the sled. He sat down behind her, holding her tight with one hand, and asked, “Ready? One… two… three!”

Tony pushed off with one hand, sending the sled hurtling down the slope of the backyard. Grace squealed with glee and Emily heard herself laughing from behind the camera. The sled slowed down as the ground evened out, and Grace scrambled out of her father’s arms, heading back up the yard for another round. “Mommy!” she shouted, running towards the camera. “See?”

“Yes, I saw you, sweetheart!” Emily replied, laughter still lingering on the edges of her voice. “Was that fun?”

“Yeah,” Grace agreed, bouncing with anticipation as she waited for her father to make it back to the top of the hill.

Emily continued to watch the TV screen as father and daughter slid down the hill again and again. Grace was just coming up the hill for yet another sled ride, giggling happily, when the low battery light flickered and the video cut out mid-laugh, giving way to a black screen. Emily got out of bed and carefully replaced the DVD into its plastic case. She opened the lid of the box again and flipped past the pictures of herself, Anthony, and Grace, past the clipped-out newspaper articles, and set the DVD back into its proper place. She slid the box back into her closet, covering it with shoeboxes and other packed-away keepsakes. Daniel had never found these boxes, and she had never told him of what had happened before she got him.

* * *

The next day when Daniel was at school, Emily did not go to work as she usually did. As soon as he got on the bus, she rushed back inside. She hurriedly dressed and got in the car, driving to the PseudoChild Support Center where they did Daniel’s upgrades. The trip seemed to take longer than normal as Emily drove without really paying attention, and finally found herself pulling into an empty parking space outside the building.

It was actually a small complex of several buildings, each centered around providing a different service. The complex was away from anything else, nestled into a small grove of trees a short distance off of the main road. It was usually tranquil, calming, even when Emily brought Daniel in to be upgraded and knew she wouldn’t see him for a few days. The surroundings of the building usually managed to calm her anxiety, and she could assure herself that he would be fine, and she’d be alright once she saw him again.

This time, the trees and the quiet did nothing to calm her mind. She quickly got out of the car, shutting the door and hurrying into the building to the left. This was where Daniel’s main technician, his “Doctor”, had his office. She entered the small waiting room and saw that there were another two people already seated, waiting for their turn. Taking a seat near the window, she gazed around the room but focused on nothing, jiggling one leg up and down like a teenager with too much energy.

Finally, the secretary called her name and she hurried into the Doctor’s office. Doctor Martin was seated at his desk, making a note on the calendar that covered his desktop.

“I can’t do this,” Emily said, almost frantic by this point.

Doctor Martin leaned forward as she took a seat at the chair on the other side of the desk and said, “Slow down, Emily. What’s bothering you?”

“I—I just don’t know if I can handle this anymore. He’s so perfect. He never argues, never does anything wrong. It was alright when he was little. It was cute. But now… he’s so different from the other kids his age.” Emily rested her head on one hand, leaning against the arm of the chair.

“Calm down, Emily,” Doctor Martin said gently. “Panicking won’t help. Just explain to me exactly what’s going on.”

She did, telling him about what had happened yesterday. “When he didn’t react at all, I just got so…” She shook her head, lost for the right words. “And then I realized what I’d just done and – what kind of mother would do that to her child?” She breathed out a frustrated sigh, but the doctor was silent, allowing her to continue. “I love him, I really do. It’s just… sometimes he’s so different. I want him to be… normal, like other kids. Please… please, can you do anything? Can’t you, I don’t know, change his programming or something? So that he doesn’t always do everything I say? So that he acts like a regular boy?” she asked desperately. “I can’t believe I’m talking about this…”

The doctor shifted in his chair, quieter than usual. “Emily, I’m sorry, but I can’t do much for Daniel. The way he is, it’s just a basic component of his programming. There are more options now, programs have changed, but to change Daniel now, he’d have to be reset almost completely. He wouldn’t be Daniel anymore. If you want that, it’s possible to arrange, but you have to understand, he wouldn’t be your son. Could you do that?”

“He wouldn’t be Daniel?” Emily repeated softly. The doctor nodded and she let his words sink in. She could have a less-than-perfect boy, but he wouldn’t be her son. He would be someone else, someone new, and their life would have meant nothing to him.

Doctor Martin spoke up again, breaking through her thoughts. “Emily, do you remember when you were first considering getting Daniel? How you thought he’d help you work through your grief?”

Emily nodded, remembering the day she’d first seen Daniel. She’d been hesitant at first, unsure of herself and whether this little robot boy could really be a son to her. The first day he’d come home, Emily had cried herself to sleep, afraid she’d just made a terrible mistake. But as the days and weeks went on, she adjusted to having a child in the house again. He’d been so warm, so alive, curious about everything, and she’d found herself wondering how she could have been afraid of this child. She got to know him, met other parents of PCs, and became part of a community again. Some of her grief receded, and she had started to feel almost normal.

“Yes,” she answered the doctor’s question. “I remember. But I don’t know if it’s worked,” she added skeptically.

“I think it has,” the doctor assured her. “You’ve grown so much in the past four years. Imagine yourself without Daniel. Imagine where you’d be today if he wasn’t there.”

Emily thought about it, and as soon as she had, she wished that she hadn’t.

“You have to realize,” Doctor Martin continued, “No relationship between parent and child is perfect. It’s the same with you and Daniel. It won’t always be easy, but that’s true about almost anything, Emily.”

Emily sighed, a weary smile coming over her face. “You’d think I would have realized that by now…”

“It’s alright to be angry at Daniel occasionally. It doesn’t make you a bad person, you know,” the doctor said in his gentle, reassuring tone.

Emily nodded, calmed by the logic of everything the doctor was saying. “I know,” she replied. She stood up slowly, feeling not quite as confused as she’d been earlier, and thanked the doctor for talking with her.

“Anytime you need to talk, Emily, call me or come back to see me here,” Doctor Martin replied, standing up to hold the door open for her. “I’ll always do my best to help.”

She nodded, said goodbye, and left the building, walking back out into the quiet parking lot. The wind had started blowing, picking up the remnants of dead leaves and carrying them across the road. They were all brown and yellow, no cheerful reds like the maple leaves in her yard had been a few months ago. The sky was grayish-blue, and the air smelled sharp, charged with energy, like it was going to snow soon.

Emily got back in the car and drove away. Daniel would be home from school soon.